GROUNDWORK- Building with Straw Bale

Last year we were approached about being interviewed for a short documentary about building with straw bales.  We are excited to share our story as well as our reasons for choosing straw bales and other natural materials to build with, and it is delightful to be among other home owners and builders who share the same sentiments about the homes we create.  We are currently on this journey once again, and the reminder of why we are doing this is truely valuable in the face of the various challenges that manifest during such a large and complex project.

Our wood working shop is also featured in Episode 1-Building with Cob.

Other episodes made are Episode 2- Building with Timber and Episode 4- Building with Rammed Earth.

*Made by TELUS Optik Local~ supports compelling, original stories told by filmmakers from BC and Alberta by providing production funding, training and exposure to new audiences.

Framing~ The Bones

roofDespite a very frigid December (for the west coast), we managed to continue building just in time to get the roof sealed up and water tight before the wet west coast winter starts in.  Here is a brief account of the structure of the frame, and the way in which we are going to insert the straw bales.

first wallOur decision to use a stick frame method as opposed to a timber frame (as we did for our first house) was mostly a compromise of time and money.  Stick framing is super fast, and we hired an experienced framer friend (thanks Danny!) to work with Colin and his design with the curved roof lines.  Dan helped Colin put his drawings into a model of the house in Sketch-Up, a computer program for architecture, so they could get accurate measurements for all the framing, especially where the lengths of the 2×4’s change subtly with the curves.  The curved roof was the main reason to use stick framing- it was eaiser and faster to frame the studs under the curved beam which is essentially two 2×8’s (cut out of 2×10’s to get the curve) overlapping all along as one continuous header the length of the roof- this also alleviates the need for headers over doors and windows.  Framing started on December 2, and was done in a month, despite a week break over Christmas.  We still have some interior shear walls to frame, as we were focused on the walls that were necessary for the roof.  Also, window and door framing will be cut in sometime in the spring.  Many people have asked us about how 2×4’s can be the only thing holding up a living roof, but the engineer says they are strong enough with the 3×8 beam on top.

The exterior walls are framed to 18 inch centres, as we will be standing the bales on end between the 2×4’s.  A lengthwise notch will be cut down each side of the bales to fit them snug around the framing, and thus hide the wood frame down the centre of the wall of bales.  The new international building code for straw bales has published findings that the bales placed 14 inches wide in the wall is the same insulation value as their 18 inch wide option, due mostly to the orientation of the straw.

All of our interior walls are shear walls (plywood on one side, and attached to the foundation directly), as required by the engineer, since our exterior walls are straw bales and not considered to have any shear strength.  The shear strength is the load that an object is able to withstand in a direction parallel to the face of the material, as opposed to perpendicular to the surface.  In walls, it is usually plywood or cross bracing that provides the shear strength, preventing any side to side movement.  So our internal walls are (or will be) sheeted with plywood and continue down to the foundation.  At the foundation, the walls are secured with hold downs to resist any upwards movement in an earthquake.

The roof is standard construction with 2×4 strapping over 2×12 joists, though in the more curvy parts of the roof we had to use double layers of 1×4.  On top of the strapping is standard 1/2″ plywood decking and a 4″ curb all around the edge to keep the dirt in.  We decided to go with a double layer torch on roof membrane this time, which should easily last a very long time, longer than us… The roof was torched on in early January and we are now secure and dry for the rest of the winter.  Colin is back to work in his shop for the next few months to get caught up with his ThujaWoodArt projects, but come the spring we hope to do the infloor heating and plumbing under the concrete slab on grade subfloor, and prepare for installing the straw bales in the summer.  We will be offering workshops for installing the straw bales and plastering in the summer through the local Heartwood Folk School, check their website for more info as we get closer!

Phase 2- Continuing the Build

foundationFoundationThe basis on which something stands or is supported; a base.  The basis or groundwork of anything.  An underlying basis or principle for something.

An overview–  The previous straw bale house chronicled on this blog was the first section of two parts of our whole building plan.  The first half is designed as an in-law suite for my mother, with a shared art studio space, and this second half that we are just starting will be bedrooms for us and our kids and a garden level living space.  The 3 acres that we have contains a lower open feild where the pond and gardens are situated, a forested upper area, and a sloping face of bedrock in between.  Since we don’t want to clear the forest or use up valuable growing space, we have designed the house to be built on the rock.  The first half sits at the top and overlooks the pond and gardens, and the other half is separeated into two floors, each built like a terrace from the garden level up to the existing section and attached with an enclosed walk way.  The total square footage will be about 2,000 square feet.

excavatorWe are building with as much attention to natural materials as possible.  We are using sustainably sourced or salvaged resources whenever we can.  The walls in this half will be straw bale with clay and lime plasters, with a living roof, just as in the first half.  We are aware of the imprint of building houses these days and the huge amount of toxic off gasing that occurs with many conventional materials as well as the chemically saturated waste that ends up in the landfill.  However, since we are building within the boundaries of building codes and needing to meet the requirements of engineers, architects and inspectors, there are just some things we can’t avoid.  Natural building can be a tag that is placed on our house as a whole, but I think it is important to state that not every aspect of the house is “natural”.  Such as, for example, the foundation.

The second half-  There are not many places in Canada where you could begin to build a house in November.  Of course, we didn’t plan to start at this point, but the process of aquiring the permit took longer than we expected.  We learned from our previous build that everything will take longer than expected.  Amazingly, the weather has been quite co-operative, allowing us to complete the form work in one week, and giving us the sunniest day of the month on the day we scheduled the pumper truck.

There is not much about the foundation that would fall into the “natural” category.  We hired an excavator to dig the footprint, and rented a large rock drill with a giant, gas powered compressor to drill out 140 holes in the bedrock, each ranging from 16″ to 24″ deep and filled with concrete grout and rebar.  We purchased a lot of 2×10 and 2×4 lumber as well as some plywood for the forms that we hope to re-use again in the framing if possible.  We set five runs of rebar inside the length of the footings and stem walls with a 1′ grid of rebar in the higher walls and snap ties every 2 feet, and placed knockouts of pvc in the footings wherever we need drainage, septic, and water runs.  We hired a concrete pumper truck and 3 truck loads of concrete.  We set anchor bolts every 3 feet in the top of the concrete to attach the framing.  The engineer is happy, the geo-tech is happy, the building inspector is happy.  This is not terribly extraordinary in the world of regular construction, in fact it is quite standard and even a “small” job.  To me it seems rather complex, requiring a lot of effort and money to create forms that become deconstucted and a structure that is largely unseen in the end.

However, this crucial first step is the foundation upon which we will begin to build up our visions of a beautiful, healthy, comfortable, sustainably functioning and lovingly hand built family house.   

 

Bales of Insulation- A Full Report

exterior bamboo piningWe are heading into our third season of winter in our straw bale house.  Hard to believe really – I so clearly remember the feeling that the house would just never be done – but there you have it, two years later we are really beginning to see the way the design and materials of the house perform through the seasons.  Last winter was a relatively mild winter in an already mild climate zone, and the winter before we didn’t really move in fully until January, so getting a sense of how much wood we might burn and how much our heating/electrical costs would be throughout the winter months has only just begun to be obvious.

winter sun bouncing off the pond

winter sun bouncing off the pond

Our three forms of heat are the wood stove, hydronic in-floor heating, and passive solar orientation.  The winter sun arches across the sky, sending it’s light and heat into our east and south windows (when it is out!) staying entirely above the top of the trees of the ridge across the valley of which we face.  At certain times of the spring and fall, the light of the sun bounces off the pond below us which lights up our ceiling with ripply light- an unplanned bonus!  We have an earthen floor in the front room, which noticeably absorbs the warmth and retains it into the evening.  The wood stove sits on a two foot tall stone hearth and is backed by a short cob wall, both of which absorb sun heat as well as stove heat.

In floor heating tubes covered by 3 inches of cob sub floor

In floor heating tubes covered by 3 inches of cob sub floor mass

Our in-floor heating is divided into two zones, one for the bathroom and north side of the house, and one which circulates the front south room.  They are set to come on if the temperatures of the rooms drop below 19 degrees celsius.  The front room heating has never come on, and the backroom zone clicks on early in the mornings of the coldest days of winter.  The tubes are embedded under 3 inches of cob, which then also retains heat for longer.

We primarily rely on the wood stove for immediate heat.  This year we lit our first fire on November 20th, and mostly because we were nostalgic for that first cozy fire.  We kept the fire going for about an hour, and then we were too hot.  We have found that we really only need to light a fire around four or five o’clock, depending on the temperature outside, and let it die down around nine, otherwise it gets up to 25 degrees!  upraised wood stoveWe have been having a cold spell right now, where temperatures fall towards -2 or -3 degrees at night (oh my!), and then we might light a fire at three in the afternoon.  Our evening fires keep the house sitting at 20 until late the next day.  Last year, this translated into our using less than half a cord of fire wood in the whole season.  We have an older style stove that doesn’t have any of the newer reburning/efficient innovations, and our space is 920 interior square feet.

The southerly exposed room of the house is lowered by two steps, (which is where the wood stove is) and so the heat tends to naturally move towards the north side of the house as it attempts to travel upwards.  If we leave one window open in the loft of the back room, the heat is pulled even more into that space.  Another design feature of the walls themselves are the wrap- around construction – meaning that the bales are continuously wrapped around the outside of the timber frame, leaving no thermal breaks except where there are doors and windows.  We used double pane thermal glass with argon gas and a low-E squared coating.

west side, south side

south and west side- wrapping bales, sun exposure, and roof overhang

I love the heat that a wood stove gives, but I am not excited about the amount of wood and trees that need to be burned.  It is not entirely a “clean” way of heating.  Eventually we will have three wood stoves on our property – this one, one in the work shop, and one in our addition to this house.  Luckily, Colin’s business of crafting furniture from salvaged red cedar means that we have a lot of  great kindling and fire wood just from his waste.  I am comforted to know that we can potentially heat our spaces for years on just a few dead or cleared trees.  We took out a few trees when building the house, and haven’t even started using them.  This fall, I chopped almost two cords of wood from those trees, which will potentially be three years of wood.  The less wood we go through the better – we even find that turning on the stove to make dinner warms the space efficiently some nights.  Certainly, if we have friends over in the evening, lighting a fire usually leads to opening some windows.

Straw bales reportedly  have an R value of 30-60.  The building code requires that insulation needs to have an R value of 20 in walls.  We have experienced this amazingly efficient quality of insulation, in the winter and in the summer, when the inside of the house is cool and refreshing on hot days.  With a 3 foot overhang of the roof blocking out the sun’s light in summer and the rain in the winter, I am ever more convinced that straw bales are a fantastic way of providing natural temperature control in any climate.

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