Building Our First Straw Bale House

On August 29, 1998 Dancing Rabbit took a big step forward with the wall raising for its first straw bale house. Thirty friends and neighbors joined us to turn 200 strawbales into a small two bedroom cabin. In the following four days we got trusses up and the roof on, but not before a thunderstorm had us out there fighting the wind and rain to keep our bales dry.

The day started early with heavy dew on the ground and on last nights spider webs. We’d been working for 3 weeks since the foundation was poured to get things ready for this day. The door and window bucks we’re built. 23 tons of gravel was placed in the foundation, the template for our trusses was done. The door bucks were ready to be bolted down to the foundation (a tale of frustration in and of itself). We had all the supplies and we were ready to go.

RC and Cecil get the door bucks in place.

Cecil lays the first bale and demonstrates the proper imbaling technique.

By 10:00 the crowds had arrived and we held a brief orientation to get people into the bale laying mood. We then broke people up into teams tying half bales and teams laying the first course, which was done by lunch time.

Meanwhile back at the common house Mark and Jim were leading a crew making trusses. It was a tall order to get 20 homemade trusses done in a day, all out of reused lumber with dumpster-dived OSB (Oriented Strand Board aka Chip Board) scraps for gussets (the flat plates that hold the trusses together).

Mark – A man and his saw

Soon after lunch the cabin was starting to show itself on our landscape. Here’s the view from the top of our grain bins.

By the third course we were starting to lay window bucks on the south side of the house. Four large windows will give the cabin plenty of solar heating in the cold months but be well shaded by the roof overhang during the summer heat.

John and Jeffrey attach a turnbuckle to the tie down wires. These wires run through rebar eyebolts in the foundation and over the top plate to hold the roof down in case of winds. The turnbuckles allow us to tighten the wires. Glad someone knew how to use a fencing tool!

And the walls just keep going up. Once you’ve got the first course down over the rebar sticking out of the foundation things go fast. Sometimes almost too fast. Keeping walls and especially corners straight and plumb is key. It was pretty common for us to take down a number of bales and redo them until th corner was plumb. After 4 courses the doors started to become a very useful feature of our little cabin, as our friend Brad from Kirksville demonstrates.

At course 5 it was time to start walking the walls as the sun started making its way west. Still a little wobbly until its all tied together. At the 5th course we started driving bamboo vertically through the bales to keep them from shifting laterally. Each pin was sharpened with a knife and care had to be taken to keep it from jutting out of the wall. At each corner rebar staples were added to make the walls interlock tightly.

And as the walls climbed higher it took a good heave-ho by Cecil to get bales up to the wall walkers. Seven courses in all gave us a wall height of 98 inches before the bales start to compress.

And as the last bale went into place with the sun dipping towards the horizon the crowd gave a happy cry. Some yelled “Hooray” some yelled “Dinner”, while some yelled “Hammah” (one of Jack’s, our two-year-old’s, favorite words and an exclamation often heard around DR). It was a day of both hard work and fun and real community spirit. We couldn’t have done it without all the wonderful help. Thanks everyone!

Day Two

The second day started with the ceremonial removing of the tarp. The big blue monster measured 40 by 60 feet was eerie looking in the morning sun but came in pretty handy when the rain came the next day.

After some bale adjusting at the corners we were ready to put on the top plate. The top plates give rigidity to the top of the wall and allow an attachment surface for a roof system. Ours were made of reused 2 x 6’s and Wheat Sheets, a particle board made from wheat straw and a non-toxic resin.

The 2 x 6 cross pieces were placed every 20 inches so as to sit below each truss and provide an attachment point. The 20 inch spacing allows us to place bales laying flat in the ceiling for insulation. By lunch we had the top plate set in place, fastened together, and sitting as square as possible on the walls (ah strawbales).

We quickly sent the tie down wires over the top plate and secured them loosely to the turnbuckles. To keep the wire from digging into the wood the books suggested a small metal protector. We found used canning lids to do the job well and a nifty little recycling innovation ta boot.

From inside things were starting to really look like a house. Too bad we couldn’t preserve that amazing natural lighting you get with no roof!

On to the trusses. Each of the 20 trusses was made of two rafters, a ceiling joist, and a king-pin. The king-pin will help support the considerable weight of the bales in the ceiling and distribute it to the walls (high school geometry in action). Each truss needed to be hoisted up by three folks and set in place over the top plate cross pieces. After centering the truss over the wall and checking it for plumb it was braced in place until the purlins went on the next day (sorry for the jargon but once you put on a roof it becomes everyday lingo).
For those curious the building is roughly 16 ft wide and 32 feet long (outside dimensions). The roof has an 8 on 12 pitch (rises 8 inches for every 12 inches horizontal – ie 34 degrees) and the rafters including the eaves (the part that sticks outside the house) are 12 feet long.

So as day two drew to a close we had the walls and roof frame in place. Little did we know that the next morning would bring us two inches of rain and 50 mph winds, nearly ripping the tarp from our building. But through the fearless efforts of the whole crowd we held the tarp in place and suffered only minor dampness which dried out quickly in the next day’s heat. (Sorry but we were too busy to take pictures of the storm!)