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One Man's Straw Bale Odyssey by Matts Myhrman
The reader will hopefully indulge me in the use- of the word 'odyssey' to describe my growing involvement in the history of plastered straw bale construction and with its more recent use. It has been an adventure involving unexpected journeys, detective work, serendipitous connections and going broke having fun.
As nothing detailed on the subject has appeared in this publication for several years, [David Bainbridge's article appeared in Issue #1, with updates in Issue #2; see also the Year One collection for Bainbridge's original article=ed.l I am providing an update on both modem use of the technique and recent research on the historic Nebraska buildings.
Starting in the late 1880's, folks in western Nebraska began building schools, churches and homes by stacking up bales of second-growth meadow hay as if they were giant bricks. Each bale overlapped the vertical join! between the two bales below it, as in standard masonry, and was pinned to those below it using metal rods or sharpened wooden stakes. With rare exceptions, the Nebraska houses had no vertical wooden posts sup paning the roof A "collar" formed from wooden planks was pinned 10 the top of the bale walls and the
Innocently perusing my copy of Sustainable Living in Drylands, Spring 1988, #2, I encounter two brief but thoughtprovoking items related to straw bale houses being built in Gila, New Mexico. The idea has immediate appeal to a longtime enthusiast of vernacular architecture and I decide to do some follow-up.
Exciting visit with Steve and Nena MacDonald in Gila They are starting the interior finishing work on their house and Steve is helping Susan Mullen and Michael Moore work on a straw bale house nearby. Both houses are post and beam structures using 18 inch wide, two-wire bales for infill and mud plaster on the interior walls.
Then on to Santa Fe, where a tip led me to an owner-built straw bale house near Glorieta. The original structure was an octagon built in 1976 with the south-facing wall segments in glass and standard frame construction, and the other segments of post and beam with straw bale infill. In 1984 they added a master bedroom (again, post and beam with straw bale infill) connected to the original part by an enclosed passage. With substantial roof overhangs, they were using unstabilized (no added waterproofing agent) mud plaster inside and out
A tip from the octagon-dwellers led me to a tiny multipurpose structure built in Santa Fe in about 1970. A framework of railroad ties supported vigas and roof materials. Straw bale infill with mud plaster. The bales appear to be sitting right on the ground.
roof rafters for the framed roof were attached to it. Wooden shingles comprised the roof surface. After an indeterminate period for compression and settling, chicken wire was typically attached to both the inner and outer walls. Cement stucco was then applied 10 the exterior walls, plaster to the interior walls. Wooden frames, attached to the bales with sharpened dowels or metal rods, permitted doors and windows to be installed. The latter were generally placed close to the outside wall, creating deep interior window ledges. Readers interested in a more detailed description of the Nebraska tradition should consult one of the articles by Roger Welsch, a Nebraskan folklorist. (See Shelter, Shelter Publications, Bolinas, CA, 1973,pg. 70, and Keystone Folklore Quarterly, Spring 1970.)
More recetu straw bale buildings have almost always been post and beam structures in which the weight of the roof is entirety supponed by rigid horizontal beams, supported by vertical posts. The straw bales are used as an insulating, plastered wall membrane filling the gaps between the posts. A well-illustrated article by Gary Strang, featuring a small post and beam structure, appeared in the December 1984/January 1985 issue of Fine Homebuilding magazine.
Hay bale home under construction by the Simonton family near Purdum, Nebraska, 1908. Photo courtesy of Dom. and Morris Simonton.
Networking and information gathering. David Bainbridge, then with the Drylands Research Institute at the University of California, Riverside, sends a copy of his working paper on straw bale construction, with long list of references. James Kalin in Oracle invites me to participate in an informal straw bale workshop there in early July and I agree to work out the details for the load-bearing straw bale walls of the
temporary structure to be built during the workshop. Based on an idea of David Bainbridge's, we use angle iron and metal strap to create lintels for the window and doors. They work fine. I develop a system for attaching the wooden collar (usually called ''the plate") to the top course of bales, using lengths of threaded rod with a hook bent on the bottom end. The top end extends up through a hole in the wooden plate, which is pulled down snugly using a plate washer and nut The day for the workshop arrives and the walls go up quickly and easily. We pin each course to the one below with pieces of rebar driven into each bale at about a 45 degree angle. The pins on which we have ground a point can be driven in much more easily.
Stucco netting (a fancy version of chicken wire) gets stapled to wooden stakes driven into the Wall, expanded metal lathe gets fastened on one comer, and we try both cement stucco and mud plaster. Except for details related to plumbing and wiring, we feel we've prototyped successfully everything needed for building a larger permanent structure, Lots of visitors come by and there is much excitement among the building crew. A permanent, Nebraska-style structure now seems possible.
I finally succeed in contacting Roger Welsch, author of the articles about straw bale construction in Nebraska. He provides a reference for an article of his which includes the approximate locations of some of these historic structures and a friend and I head for the Sandhills of west-central Nebraska, where we spend eight wonderful days combing this unusual area for straw bale houses. Welsch's article leads us to some structures, and conversations with local old-timers lead us to others that he had apparently not located during his sleuthing. One that we locate through an old-timer dates back to 1914 and is still used as the headquarters residence for a large cattle ranch. We visit with people in their straw bale houses, record anecdotes, take photographs and borrow old ones, receive warm and generous treatment from the local folks, and have a great time.
On the way back to Tucson we stop again in Gila and get photos of the now-impressive interior of Steve and Nena's house. By scrounging creatively and doing everything themselves or with volunteer labor, they have completed the house for between six and seven dollars per square foot and have walls with an R-value of over 30. We also get to photograph the now nearly completed Moore-Mullen house. Thanks to Steve, Gila is becoming the center of the modem revival of straw bale construction.
A free ride to California gives me a chance to photograph a tidy straw bale structure built by Jon Hammond near Winters in 1982 and featured in the previously mentioned article in Fine Homebuilding. I also photograph a completely unplastered straw bale house that has been built and unbuilt several times under a beautiful post and beam supported roof. In its present incarnation it has been lived in for several years, presumably by someone very careful with exposed flames. October'89
By telephone, I explore further leads on historic structures in Nebraska and Wyoming, and receive additional his-
toric photographs, including one of what was probably the world's only baled tumbleweed structure. I put together and present a slide show about plastered straw bale construction, historic and modem. Steve MacDonald comes over for one of the presentations and gets introduced to the audience as the person who has built more straw bale structures than any other living human being, i.e., two. I seek an opportunity to build. near Tucson, a small "permanent" straw bale structure with load-bearing walls.
In late November, some folks on a ranch in southern Arizona need a small building for an office space and are ready to go for it, Nebraska style.
December' 8 91 January' 90
During December and January I work with the backers developing sketches for the building, obtaining 120, threestring bales (actually tied with polypropylene cord), measuring to determine an average bale-length, sizing the foundation slab based on this average, working up materials lists, making sketches for the lintels, getting the 26 ft. x 18 ft. slab poured. etc. A calendar notice is placed in this newsletter requesting volunteers to help with wall-raising and stuccoing and the calls start coming in.
Following several days of threatening weather, Saturday the 3rd.dawns cool but clear. Volunteers begin trickling in, including some from Ciudad Obregon, Mexico. We start by waterproofing a strip around the edge of the slab with asphalt emulsion and a two foot wide strip of roofing felt Shortly after 9 am we start in one comer with the first bale. At the four comers and at one location along each of the two longer walls, we have foundation bolts sticking.up out of the slab. Using coupling nuts, we have added a 3 foot piece of threaded rod to the top of each foundation bolt. By carefully pushing bales down onto these threaded rods as the wall goes up and adding additional 3 foot sections of threaded rod as needed, we hope to create at these six locations a continuous physical connection between the slab and the wooden plate atop the wall, to which the roof rafters will be attached. Short lengths of rebar sticking up out of the slab at every other bale in the first course hold those bales in place.
continued on page 13
Post and beam straw bale home built in 1988 - 89 in Gila, New Mexico.
Permaculture in Action
Straw Bale Update:
Into the Mainstream
by Matts Myhrman
This is an update 0/ an article that appeared in Issue No. 10 0/ this journal, Spring 1990. Readers interested in plastered straw bale construction should also check out David Bainbridge's article in Issue No.1, and Roger Welsch's article in Shelter (Shelter Publications, Bolinas, CA, 1973.) An annotated bibliography on straw bale construction is available/rom Out on Bale, (un)Ltd., 1037 E. Linden St., Tucson, AZ 85719,for $2 postpaid. (Please make checks or money orders payable to Matts Myhrman.)
My previous article left off in February of 1990, as I waited for compression to take place in the load-bearing straw bale walls of a small office/bunkhouse that I designed for a ranch southwest of Tucson. Volunteers with no previous experience had stacked and pinned the eight-foot-high walls in 3 1/2 hours. They fmished the roof at the end of the third day.
While compression was taking place, we installed the electrical system on the interior wall surface, using plasticcoated, underground-rated three wire cable. For wall receptacles, switches and fixtures, we attached metal boxes to the top of 2 x 2 wooden stakes with dry wall screws. The stakes were then pounded into the wall at the desired locations.
Ceiling runs were done in the normal fashion: R-30 fiberglass insulation was inserted between the rafters, and the
Inserting metal boxes on 2 x 2 stakes into a straw bale wall.
Photo: Matts Myhrman
The finished straw bale bunkhouse, erected during a 3-day workshop near Tucson, Arizona by an inexperienced crew. Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox stand at the corner.
Photo: Jane Hoffman
sheet rock ceiling went up. Rough frames for the windows and doors were made using 2 x 6's, and fastened in their openings using dowels driven into the bales through holes in the frame. (In the process, we learned that we should have built and installed the frames prior to laying any bales on either side of them.)
After a month and a half, the walls had compressed about 7/8 of an inch and stabilized. The stucco netting (like chicken wire, but heavier) was then attached simultaneously to both the inner and outer wall surfaces using lengths of galvanized wire pushed through the wall with a homemade
> "wire needle" tool. Expanded metal lath was stapled to the rough window and door frames and wrapped around the comers of the openings to reinforce them. Likewise on all four comers of the building.
Later in the year I got a call from Virginia Carabelli, who wanted to have a straw bale guest house built on her land near Tesuque, New Mexico. I gave her designer, Ken Figuerdo, information on nearby straw bale houses and sent him copies of the practically-oriented articles I've located.
Early in November I received a call from Virginia. She had visited every large bank in Santa Fe without being able to arrange financing. Do I have any suggestions? "FINANCING?" I said to myself in disbelief. Is she crazy? I doubt that anyone else has ever even tried to get a construction loan to build a straw bale house! But a few days later, she called back
continued on page 4
Matts Myhrman is a longtime enthusiast of vernacular architecture. His investigations into the history of straw bale construction have led to straw bale activism.
Issue No. 14, Spring 1991
Straw Bale Update continued/rom page 3
jubilant She and Ken Figuerdo had spoken to a loan officer at a small, locally owned bank. The bank owner had been intrigued by the project and approved the loan!
She had also located a sympathetic builder, serendipitously a neighbor of straw bale house owners in nearby Glorieta. The county had approved her plans and the foundation work would start in about ten days. The flat, parapetenclosed roof of the approximately 1400 square foot house would rest on a framework of heavy wooden posts and beams, with three-string bales laid flat as infill between the posts. (This provides walls two feet thick with an insulation rating of about R-4S.) The concrete slab floor would contain rubber tubing through which propane-heated water would circulate to provide radiant heating. The floor would be foot square Saltillo tile. There would be two interior comer fireplaces and one under the north portal ("Santa Fenglish" for porch).
During this same period, I was also designing a multipurpose building (one large room with a full bath in one comer) that will hopefully be built twice, once in Pima County and once in Tucson, Arizona. To get the plans approved, a structural engineer had to stamp off on them. This meant doing a rigid post-and-beam framework to support the roof load and withstand the seismic and wind loads. The performance of the historic structures in Nebraska (see Issue No. 10), none of which had such a framework, doesn't cut any ice with engineers because there aren't any numbers for straw bales that can be plugged into the standard formulas.
Placing straw bale infill between posts at the Carabelli
house, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Matts Myhrman
My engineer and I fmally developed a system involving wooden posts and beams and steel strap for cross-bracing, and a friend started the process of creating the necessary drawings. Problems arose when the senior plans examiner at the County indicated that our engineer would also have to stamp off on the integrity of the bale walls and their means of connection to the framework, unless the head of his department was willing to let us do the walls on an experimental basis under a section of the Uniform Building Code that deals with "alternative methods and materials."
Since we knew that there was virtually no chance of getting an engineer to stamp off on more than the framework, we decided to appeal to Leroy Sayre, head of the County's building codes division. Three of us arrived at the fateful meeting loaded with every bit of supporting evidence we could muster, including a very detailed scale model of my design made with homemade bales cut from Styrofoam beadboard, balsa wood, colored paper, etc.
Surprise! It turned out that as a boy on his family's farm, Sayre had made straw bale forts, and understood the competence of the material! The model carried the day, and we were instructed to get our plans finished up and submitted.
At the end of January, I returned to fmd a cryptic phone message that our housesitter had transcribed:
"Virginia ... African gov worker stopped work because of
fire ... she's pissed!" It turned out that a neophyte electrical inspector, on his first visit to the job, got antsy about the question of fire danger. (By this time it dawned on me that "African" is phonetically similar to "A friggin" which makes much more sense in context) Virginia provided the building inspectors with a report on Canadian fire resistance tests on a stuccoed straw bale wall and the news was good: work could begin.
I arrived in Tesuque in mid-March, just after the walls began going up, to see what promises to be a precedent-setting straw bale structure. It was designed by a professional, it is being built by a builder (entirely with paid labor), it is being built legally with plans approved by the county and it has qualilled for a construction loan from a bank. If that's not mainstream, what is?
After greeting Virginia and meeting Warner Johnson, her builder, and his crew, I got out some specialty tools and showed the crew how they work. My "wire needles" quickly replaced their workable, but slower, system for getting new wires through bales to make smaller, custom bales. They continued to use a balky, noisy chain saw for making deep notches into the sides of bales, but found my antique "hay saw" more convenient for small notches and comer trimming. By day's end, the north and west walls were ready for paper and stucco netting and the south wall about half done.
The next day, visitors were numerous. Representatives from the building department, out to get Polaroid photos of the process, reported that they are already getting several inquiries
Permaculture Drylands Journal
each day from people interested in straw bale building. A photographer from Santa Fe's daily newspaper took pictures and an article is expected soon.
A second group of visitors included Scott Pittman, founder of Permaculture Drylands Institute, and a longtime advocate for permaculture in the Southwest. He gave a brief report of a straw bale workshop held in Texas in September. He then announced that he and the people with him had been asked by the head of New Mexico's Construction Industry Division to submit a proposed section for the Uniform Building Code that would cover straw bale construction!
Any section approved by New Mexico would certainly become a model for other jurisdictions, as was the case with sun-dried adobe. I offered to help and a plan emerged for me to show my "introductory" slide show the next day to any appropriate city, county, and state employees that could be rounded up on short notice.
Meanwhile, despite a serious snow flurry, the bales continued to fall into place. After lunch, I showed Warner and the electrician, Dave Rodriguez, how to position the electrical boxes by attaching them with dry wall screws to foot-long 2 x 2 wooden stakes that are then driven into the bales. Since they had no such stakes, Warner invented a "better mousetrap." A foot-long piece of 2 x 4, ripped from comer to comer, yielded two stakes, each with a head providing a greater area for attachment. Pounding them in at an angle puts the box square with the wall. I made a note to include this technique in an eventual "how to" book and the work went on. By the end of
FILE os: GRJNO / TO 3LUNT POINT
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Homemade "wire needles" make pulling wire through bales an easier task.
Illustration: Silvia Parsons
The precedent-setting Carabelli house, prior to stuccoing.
Photo: Malls Myhrman
the day, only a few bales remained to be placed Even with a design that required many custom sized bales and a crew that had never worked with straw bales before, the wall infill (and insulation) have gone up in three days. A celebration was in order and we had one.
The next day, the crew finished placing the last few bales and got a good deal of the exterior wall surface papered and wired with stucco netting. The "wire needles" that I had manufactured the previous day proved useful in snugging the paper and stucco netting up against the bales in the areas between posts.
In the afternoon I showed my slides at City Hall Annex.
Probing questions were asked and answered and a ritual exchange of business cards took place. Ideas for a local project to demonstrate the use of plastered straw bale construction for mainstream affordable housing were discussed.
- The ad hoc Straw Bale Code Committee and I made plans to meet again in May.
Before returning to Tucson, I visited a one-room straw bale addition to an old adobe on the edge of Santa Fe. Although the occupant/builder had previously provided information by telephone, I was totally unprepared for the stunning beauty of the interior wall surface. Though actually consisting of oil-finished, light-colored adobe plaster (into which had been hand-rubbed a dry mixture of iron oxide and Structolite plaster), the wall glowed like burnished leather, the variegated colors straight from the Neolithic cave paintings in France.
This room was designed and built by the occupant without benefit of permits; the bale walls and roof profile were unabashedly irregular; the water circulating through the homemade radiant heating system in the poured adobe floor was heated by the sun; the adobe plaster had been applied directly to the bales without use of stucco netting or even chicken wire and it was strictly "pay as you go" on this job. Clearly, straw bale construction can comfortably accommodate many "different strokes for different folks."
Issue No. 14, Spring 1991
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