Straw Bale Houses: Load Bearing, Timber Framed & More

Straw Bale Houses At Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

By Alline Anderson

The following article was published in The Last Straw, a publication focused on straw bale houses. Some jargon is used, so feel free to contact us if you need further explanation!

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage makes its home in the gently rolling hills of Northeastern Missouri. Our 280 acres, purchased in 1997, is held in a Community Land Trust. Thus, each of its residents share control over the property. It is a very rural area, and most of the folks who live around here have a farm, even if they earn their living some other way. A scarcity of building codes is just one reason we have chosen to live here.

Construction Is Best with a Lot of Cooperation

As an intentional community, we feel we have the best of both worlds when it comes to straw bale construction. When we need lots of hands everyone makes time to help. Each member seems to specialize in something different, from solar power to carpentry. Our ecovillage is actively seeking new members, and so we host about 250 visitors each year, who contribute enormous amounts of energy and skill to our labor pool. Additionally, our successful internship program provides us with energetic, enthusiastic and idealistic people from all over the US and Canada. They’re with us from April through November and we couldn’t (or at least wouldn’t want to) do without them! When we need big help, folks in the wider community, including some of the local Mennonite farmers, have been generous in sharing their knowledge, labor and equipment.

Weather Has A Big Impact On Building

Summers here are humid and hot (up to 100 degrees) and our winters are known to dip below zero. We get year-round thunderstorms with driving, horizontal rain, so our buildings have to stand up to all kinds of abuse. We currently have six buildings in various stages of completion; five of these are straw bale and each is different.

Allium: Two Room Load Bearing House

Allium, home to Rachel, is a two-room load-bearing house (the bales in the wall actually support the roof). Like the rest of the DR Ecovillage buildings, it has a white metal roof, which helps keep it cool in summer. The interior walls and floors are of natural plaster–clay, straw and sand–resulting in the look and feel of smooth leather. Allium is easily kept warm in the winter by a wood stove and has a solar panel (also known as photovoltaic, or PV) power system. The exterior was originally natural mud plaster, but as this has been taking a beating with each storm, we’re experimenting with other materials now, including lime. Like raising children, we’ve made mistakes and learned lots on this and all of our buildings.

Timber Frame: One Room Timber Framed House

Our second building is a timber frame straw bale building set on concrete piers, with a shed roof. It has one main room with a sleeping loft. The open bottom of the house made it quite chilly in the winter–one could actually see the drafts coming up through the wheat-sheet floor (wheat sheets are similar to particle board, but are made of compressed wheat straw, without toxic glues). Tamar has since put skirting around the perimeter, resulting in a much warmer space for Jennifer and her three kids. The building has lots of southern window exposure and when properly insulated will rely heavily on passive solar heating, boosted by a wood stove. The interior plaster is lime-based, and quite lovely.

Bella Ciao: One Room Load Bearing Studio

Bella Ciao, DR’s third building and current home of Jan, is a load-bearing straw bale studio built during a women’s building workshop in 1999. It is made with lightweight, wonky bales, and taught us the importance of using dense bales that are all roughly the same size. Bella Ciao has natural plaster on the interior walls and floor.

Milkweed Cottage: Two Story Modified Conventional Frame

The Milkweed Cottage, built by Kurt Kessner and Alline Anderson, is a straw bale house with a modified conventional frame and straw bale infill. Like the rest of the buildings at Dancing Rabbit, the wood used in its construction is mostly reclaimed from local barn and house demolition. The house has a shallow frost-protected concrete foundation and a poured concrete floor for solar mass. There is a 3,000-gallon (two chamber) cistern under the dining room, and rainwater will be collected off the roof. There is a PV system, windmill, wood stove and large south-facing windows. After the Bella Ciao wonky-bale experience, we learned to work closely with the local farmer who supplies our wheat-straw bales. All the Rabbits were out in the field as the baling was done, and checking sample after sample until the bales had the density and consistent size we were looking for.

Skyhouse: Two Story, Six Bedroom Building

Our biggest adventure yet is Skyhouse. An architect-designed six-bedroom straw bale building with a 40-battery PV system, Skyhouse has frost protected shallow foundation with French drain and an eight-gabled saw-tooth roof. A post and beam frame uses 100-year-old Douglas Fir beams salvaged from an old warehouse in Chicago. Currently the roof is on and windows, doors, and bale walls are in. Construction on the interior of the second floor continues during the winter thanks to the intrepid Tom Cowen.

Half of the windows at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage are salvaged and the other half are brand-new Marvins. We were able to purchase a truckload of returned custom-made Marvin windows and doors for a very reasonable price. While some of them are odd sizes and unusual shapes, what do we care? We can design our buildings to fit the windows!

Our Ecovillage has a column in the local weekly paper, The Memphis Democrat, where we talk about what we’re doing out here–there’s a lot of local curiosity. We’ve had quite a few farmers stop by and inquire about strawbale buildings some are even considering straw bale for possible farm outbuildings, which is exciting.

Straw bale building is proving to be not only an economical, sustainable medium for home building, but a marvelous bridge to a somewhat skeptical wider community.

Want To Build Straw Bale Houses With Us?

Dancing Rabbit as a great place to build straw bale houses and other natural buildings. Visitors can get hands on experience and we hope to have more natural building workshops in the future. If you already have experience with natural building, we’d love for you to build your straw bale home here at DR, and share your skills with us as we share ours with you. Plus we have many paid work opportunities for those with buildi
ng skills from those in the village who want help building a home.

If you are interested in building straw bale or other natural buildings at Dancing Rabbit, then please learn more about joining us.

You may also want to check out our cob house building work exchange position.