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Straw Bale Utility Building: Step Two on the Desert Homestead

Dave L HeadshotBut we just got done with the Bear Cave…  

Barbara and I had finished work on our adobe Bear Cave and were comfortably sheltered from heat, cold, and wind for eating, sleeping, and relaxing. However, we were still doing laundry in a five gallon bucket and scrubbing adobe-stained socks with a scrub brush.

Our showers came from a 55-gallon barrel on an elevated frame of 2x4s with a piece of hose and a sprinkler head. Trust me when I say that our January showers were brief. 

shower 

Our toilet was a bamboo booth with a plywood platform supporting a toilet seat over a 5-gallon bucket of peat moss and sawdust. We referred to it as our toilet model JJJCBCT/5-gal. That translates as a “Joe Jenkins Joint Compound Bucket Composting Toilet / 5 gallon.”  It worked great and contributed to our compost system, but winter visits were short and only marginally comfortable.

So, it looked like we needed another building. The thought made my back hurt.  After all, we had just spent 18 months on the Bear Cave. But out came the books, the pencils, straight edge, and calculator. It was time to build again: inside laundry, inside toilet, sink, and a truly HOT shower coming up.  A straw bale utility building was born.

unplastered strawbale 

 From the ground up… 

The stem wall for the Annex, the fairly pretentious name we gave our utility building, had to be 27” wide to accommodate a 24” straw bale and provide a base for a plaster coat. We decided that because we already had lots of adobe and forms for making block, that we would make a waterproofed adobe stem wall. 

adobe footings 

Buying 5 gallons of asphalt emulsion from our building supply store, we mixed a 10-to-1 water to asphalt emulsion solution. With this, we mixed a few batches of adobe block and let them cure in the sun. We used the same solution as mortar when we laid the stem wall. We filled the space between the walls with wet adobe mud and put in rebar pegs to impale the first course of straw bales.

annex stemwall 

Once the stem wall was cured, about a week, we put in the door buck and window bucks and began stacking bales. We made bale needles from steel strapping for tying short bales as needed. When the wall rose above four bales, I decided to give my body a break. With the help of our neighbor’s John Deere Jr., Barbara lifted the bales and I walked around the top of the bale wall with a bale hook like I knew what I was doing, dragging the bales into position. 

Barbara on tractor 

We pinned the bales by driving in sections of rebar every three courses and topped the wall system with a bond beam of 2x6s in a segmented box over 3/4” plywood. In the corners of the building we had secured continuous sections of all-thread from stem wall to bond beam. With these we were able to both secure and level the corners by tightening the top nut over a broad washer. We used cable and turnbuckles at 4 foot intervals to draw down the bond beam and connect it to the stem wall around the entire building. We secured homemade trusses to the bond beam with hurricane straps and put up our sheathing and steel roofing.

turnbuckles 

 Once the building was weathered in and the door and windows were in place, we began on the walls. Using the same plastering techniques as we did on the Bear Cave, we started applying the multiple coats of adobe that transform an irregular bale wall into a finished product.

partial plaster 

Inside the building, we laid out a basic straight line plumbing drain to accommodate a deep sink, a clothes washer, a bathroom sink, and a shower. Water was accessed from a 3/4" pipe taken off the main water line of the Bear Cave. The drains all fed into a gray water line that ran to our trees. Once the plumbing, in and out, was done, we started on the interior wall and shower construction.

annex 

 When the walls were up and the outside was plastered, we began working on finishing the interior. This process included installing hangers for shelves, cabinet and sinks, a flagstone floor, a tiled shower, a closet and finish interior plaster. After the interior was complete, we built the porch, potting shed, and work shop as appendages on the outside. This little building is truly the utilitarian heart of our little desert homestead. In future blogs, I will be sharing our process for the finishing the interior and the outside construction.