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Straw Bale House: A Four-Person Barn Raising

Dave L HeadshotFrom installing the window and door bucks to topping the walls with bond beams, this crew of four completed the exterior walls on this DIY 720 sq ft house in four days. Next comes the roof!

Barbara and I retired from teaching high school the last week of May, 2009. With the help of our neighbors, Dan and Anneke, we moved lock, stock, and barrel from Tucson to Cochise with a couple round trips in a pickup with horse trailer, Chevy Blazer, and Barbara’s little Corolla. After a day of resting from the move and getting organized, we were ready to build. This blog is not just a chronicle of our straw bale house walls going up, it is a “thank you” to our neighbors, Dan and Anneke. They not only got us moved, but devoted their time and energy to helping us get our walls up. They are the kind of people that put the “good” in good neighbor.

       Crew Day Three 

About a week before we retired, our ranch supply store delivered about 180 straw bales freshly baled and tightly packed. Bales from different machines can vary in size, number of strings, and the length of the straw strands. Our bales averaged about 4 feet long x 15 inches high x 24 inches wide.  The bales we bought had long strands, which made a variety of building chores easier than a chopped straw bale. The market here at that time was $6.50 per bale. Thus, our walls, without rebar pinning or bucks, cost us $1,170 delivered. The bucks and rebar pinning added a couple hundred dollars more.

     Bale Needles 

To accommodate openings less than 4 feet, we had to retie bales into shorter lengths using baling twine and bale needles. Retying with long strand bales was a dream compared to the choppy bales our neighbors used. A long-strand bale holds its shape, while a short-strand or chopped straw bale tends to crumble when retying. Ugly!

To retie our bales, we measured our new bale length and pushed a bale needle through the bale near one of the existing strings.  We pulled a loop of new baling string up through the bale and tied off in both directions, creating two new shorter bales. Once a new string was tied next to all three original strings and the two new flakes were tight, the old string was cut and put aside for the next use.

I made the bale needles from a couple pieces of galvanized fence end strapping that were salvaged from a neighbor’s project. Our needles were about two feet long, excluding the handle. I bent the handle in my vise and used a grinder to cut a retaining notch and make a point on the needle. Cost = Zero. It is possible to purchase “professional” bale needles from a variety of resources, but why?

      First Day of Straw Bale Building 

Wall raising day arrived. We were rested and ready to go. June is hot here in southern Arizona and our neighbors have their own ranch to tend, so our work day usually started about 6 a.m. and stopped about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Our first day was something of a shake down. We got our tying system running well and the door and window bucks installed and the first course of bales on the stem wall. It felt good to get started. After Dan and Anneke left, we did clean up and got ready for day two.

     Straw Bale Building Second Day 

 On the second day, the wall grew to four rows. We began pinning the wall at the fourth row. Five foot lengths of 3/8 inch rebar were cut and driven through the bales every two feet to stabilize the wall. We made sure to drive the rebar entirely into the top bale to avoid tripping or kneeling on an exposed end. With the bottom course of bales firmly pressed unto pins sticking out of the stem wall and the additional rebar pins every additional third course, we had a strong wall.  

At the corners, we impaled each corner bale on a piece of 3/8 inch all-thread three feet long. The first section was anchored in the stem wall. We joined each length of all-thread with a long nut to give us an adjustable mechanical tie from stem wall to bond beam on each corner. This helped secure and level the bond beam. We were careful not to cut any bale strings as we drove the rebar pins.

There are many methods of stabilizing straw bale walls. Interior pins, exterior pins of bamboo tied through the bales, strapping and on and on. If done well, all will do the job, I suspect. We found that exterior pinning caused cracking in the plaster on the Annex wall, so chose interior pinning for our home.

     On the Straw Bale Wall 

 As I am getting to be a bit “long in the tooth” and much closer to 70 than to 60, I don’t try to buck bales above four courses anymore. When I was 20, it was a different story, but – Oh Well!

As a consequence, we used Dan’s little tractor bucket and a scaffold to work the wall as it rose. I must admit that walking along a wall made of a single row of bales as it shifted and moved is no longer a source of entertainment for me. And when the job involved reaching into the bucket of the tractor with a hay hook and dragging a bale into place on the wall - well, I’m glad it’s done.

Once the bond beams and final pinning was done, the wall didn’t move at all and working the trusses in the next phase of building was a breeze.

     Straw Bale House Day Three 

By the end of the third day, we had the end in sight. We had originally intended to build a wall only six courses high. But when we were through with the sixth course, we discovered that the door and window spaces had left us enough material for a seventh course.

Nothing in my body wanted to do that as I was one tired puppy.  But in retrospect, I’m happy we pushed the wall up one more level. Our interior ceilings are about 9 feet now and, although our house is pretty small, the fact that the interior space is pretty open and the ceilings are high makes it feel much more spacious.

     Placing Bond Beams Day Four 

The fourth day was comparatively easy. We had few bales to cut and tie as we were above the doors and windows. We had our system down pat by now. The job was finished with lifting one last row of bales and the placement the bond beams. Each 8 foot section of bond beam was attached to the next with carriage bolts and shimmed level.

We drilled holes and drove our second round of rebar through the bond beams and down three courses of bales to further strengthen the walls. The protruding all-thread on the corners was fastened with a large wood washer and a steel 1 1/2 inch washer to lock the corners into place. The following day, we began the roof. But that’s another story!

     Casa at Dawn 

Today, as I write this, it is 103 degrees outside. Our R-42+ walls keep our inside temperature about 68 degrees with the help of a small evaporative cooler that runs on low setting and isn’t cranked up until late afternoon. This past winter was cold for Arizona.  We had a couple days in single digits, the lowest being 2 degrees above zero. We heat with a small wall-mounted propane heater. When we went to bed on the coldest night, the interior of our house was 70 degrees. We turned the heater off at 8:30 p.m. and, when I got up at 5:00 a.m., it was 62 degrees in the house. Straw bale homes are great! 

11/22/2013 12:16:08 PM

We are in OK and looking at a similar structure. We have really sandy soil and no clay where we are. What kind of foundation should we use.

11/22/2013 8:07:38 AM

Hi, I am from southeast Colorado and we just bought 2 yrs ago a foreclosure straw bale house that needed lots done to it , mainly on the inside. I thought that we were unable to use a evaporation cooler due to the moisture it expelled and it gets hot here at about 90-110 for days! This house can really get warm sometimes , so is it ok to get a EV cooler?, Thanks!

dave larson
6/27/2011 7:24:40 AM

Hi Nebraska Dave, One of the bizarre things about straw bale houses. They are less combustible than a stick house. The tight bales covered by plaster don't permit aeration for fire growth. Because they are straw, assumptions are made - often by planning and zoning folk. Most states, don't know if Nebraska is one, have county level authority on most of the elements of building codes. In our country, P & Z was being driven by developers for a while. They did not want independent, owner/builders taking away their niche. Here in Cochise county, a group of citizens (Cochise County Individual and Property Rights - CCIPRA) started a grass roots movement which finally made the county supervisors change their minds. If an owner is also the builder and the primary resident, "non-traditional" building can happen on land that is zoned RU-4. Love to see that spread!Enjoy your Nebraska summer!

nebraska dave
6/25/2011 6:25:34 PM

Dave, your house really turned out great. I would suspect a house like the one you built would not pass the fire code inspection in my city. Nebraska has a lot of rules, regulations, and permits to acquire even in the rural areas. Even folks that wanted to build a under ground berm homes had a dickens of a time to get a permit. It's only been just a few years ago that geothermal heating was permitted in certain areas. It sure does keep the heat out in the summer and the cold winter nights from getting inside in the winter. You should be quite proud of your accomplishments. Have a great day enjoying your straw bale house.

oz girl
6/25/2011 3:17:11 PM

Hey Dave, thanks for popping by my blog... my parents had a place in Clarkdale, then Cottonwood, and now my mom still has a place in Cottonwood, so I've been to AZ more times than I can count and I LOVE IT there! Ah heck, I love all of the southwest. :) It was funny you commented on my Grit blog, because just yesterday I read your straw bale post, which I found immensely interesting. Didn't have time to comment then, so now I am. My mom is close to 70, and she is just like you and your wife, still extremely active. She and her new husband (my dad died in '06) are still buying and rehabbing houses (same as my mom and dad like to do). Kudos to everyone who keeps moving, even if we do start doing it slower -- hope I do the same, as I'm now on the plus side of 50. :) :)

dave larson
6/24/2011 9:27:16 AM

Hi N. Dave, The rack was fun to build and the price was right. We've been enjoying it. Good luck with yours!!

dave larson
6/24/2011 9:27:08 AM

Hi N. Dave, The rack was fun to build and the price was right. We've been enjoying it. Good luck with yours!!

dave larson
6/23/2011 4:53:06 PM

Hi Cin, Couldn't agree more about straw bale houses being a great option for DIY building. I have built with traditional stick and siding, adobe, and straw bale. I would definitely go with straw bales if I were to build again. It is above 103 F as I write this and the inside temp in our straw bale is about 72 with our evaporative cooler on low. Lovin' it. If you have more specific questions, please feel free to contact me. My website is Barbara and I enjoy writing about the many aspects of simple, self-reliant living in the desert. Glad you liked the blog and thanks for your kind words.

cindy rafter
6/23/2011 2:14:47 PM

Thank you so much for sharing your straw house build! I have seen them on tv being constucted but you view was very helpful! I will book mark this and show my Hubby and Mom (she wants a Yurt). I believe strw bale houses are the way to go!! Again, thanks so much! Cin