Guest Post

I invited my beloved to write a guest post reflecting months of research he has invested trying to find the best possible choice for the exterior and interior of our home. Please welcome Jason, and enjoy the writing he’s prepared for you today.

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Straw bale houses come in all shapes and sizes and tend to reflect the diverse and creative group of people that look at baled grain husk and think, “I could build a house with that.” I’ve toured grand mansion/cabins and ratty, wavy-walled shacks all made from bales. The only thing that basically all straw bale houses have in common is plaster. Whether it’s old world lime plaster, cement stucco, clay-straw cob, or a dung-and-horse-hair pack, almost all straw bale houses use plaster.

Plaster is attractive for several reasons but notably because straw bales are inherently uneven. They vary in dimension, density, and don’t have nice, sharp corners and sides to stack. They look like nice little blocks but trust me, they’re not. Plaster easily rolls with that variation. Plus, bale houses lack the regular spaced studding that is necessary for cladding like siding, drywall, and plywood. But none of that is what makes plaster so crucial to the longevity of a bale house.

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The reason is simple yet deceptive. Straw bales have a lot going for them – they are locally available, cheap, structurally strong, and easy to form and shape. But they have three big enemies – and all of them are water; liquid water, humidity (water in the air), and condensation (water falling out of the air). And a carefully designed plaster wall deals the best with that triple threat.

When most people think about protecting bales from water they think of water shielding. They think of tarps, shelters, and coverings. That is why many uninformed straw bale builders gravitate to high cement stucco plaster. It’s locally available, tradesmen are comfortable with it, and it is the most waterproof. But when you factor in the complete moisture picture it turns out to be functionally the worst plaster option.

The obvious and visible forms of water are rain, snow, dripping roofs, and the like. And obviously, any straw house must deal with that stuff too. But for most houses liquid water isn’t the biggest enemy. Roofs are excellent at redirecting it. But air has water in it – lots of water. If you condensed all the water out of the air in your house right now you would have literally hundreds of gallons of it. But at a constant temperature most of it stays locked in the air. The problem starts with temperature changes. Just the way water condenses on a cold bathroom mirror when it’s touched by the warm air from the shower; warm house air condenses when it meets outside air. If your house is +20 and the outside is -30 there is a 50-degree temperature difference. That’s why your house gets “foggy” when you open the front on a cold winter’s day. And this is unavoidable. As the warm air from your house moves “through” the walls towards the outside cold air, the moisture in it will condense out. Somewhere. Inside your walls. It is inevitable and however much you work to minimize it you must also work to deal with it and redirect it.

Modern construction tries to deal with this fact (with varying degrees of success) with plastic. Miles of plastic. You plastic the outside of the house, the inside of the house, you tape the window seams, you poly the interior of the roof, many roofers now poly the outside of the roof, and you tape, glue, tar, and staple everything. The problem is that it is quite literally impossible to make a house airtight. The reality is that water WILL get into your walls. The key is to keep the amount low and to know how to deal with it once it gets in. The lack of knowledge about this in the construction and building code world is why so many newer houses mold, leak, rot, and shift as much as they do. I have seen one-year-old houses with mold around the windows, water stains below the plug covers, sagging drywall, and more. The problem was that they literally can’t be airtight enough to keep warm, moist air completely out but they were too airtight to get rid of it once it was in. Like washing dishes with a rubber glove that has a single hole; the builders made a house that let a little water in and then trapped it.

Straw bale houses work on a different principle – they strive to keep liquid water out but they admit that humidity and condensation water will get in, then focuses on what to do to get rid of it. Bale walls are hygroscopic. That’s a fancy word to say that they “breathe”. Straw takes in and gives off moisture. It can “hold” some moisture problem-free. A lot of moisture, actually. Straw is typically baled at 12%-16% moisture. To get lower than that you’d need to kiln bake it. But straw doesn’t start rotting or molding until around 20%. By weight. And bales weight a lot. That means that my house, with the bales installed at around 14%, can take in over a ton of water without even flinching.

In a conventional house, 2000lbs of water in the walls would spell disaster. Wood holds little water, insulation less, and plastic holds none. The whole ton of moisture would pool at the bottom and wreck everything. But in a hygroscopic bale house that moisture is nearly evenly distributed among the bales. It comes out to less than 6 cups of water per bale. Hardly anything. So rather than building completely airtight (or worse, almost airtight) we built “liquid water proof” and then plastered the wall so that it could still breathe. True, this lets some moisture into the walls but it also makes sure that dry air either inside or outside will take moisture out.

This explains why siding, brick, stone, and drywall are bad partners of straw – they don’t breathe well and any moisture becomes trapped moisture. It may take years or decades but eventually your bales will rot. Plaster wins every time. But choosing a specific plaster involves balancing a lot of factors. Gypsum plaster lets out the most water; it “breathes” the best. But gypsum also rots when it gets rained on. So, it’s a good interior plaster but fails outdoor. Cement stands up to rain and sun the best but it breathes the worst and it is the most rigid; as your bales settle it tends to crack and then the cracks let in even more water. So, pure cement is better than siding but still not ideal. Straw-clay cob, a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and sometimes additives like fiberglass or hair is great. It stands up to rain better than you might imagine, resists the sun’s UV, is cheap (almost free), and breathes very well. But it is VERY labor-intensive to dig, screen, sieve, and slake clay, and it does erode over time. Lime plaster, the most common wall coating of western history until 50 years ago, is fantastic. But it is mostly available through specialty stores that focus on historical buildings. And it has to be shipped from California.

For us the best choice came down to high-lime cement stucco. It is a compromise between durability, ease of application, breathability, and longevity. Plus, it had the added bonus of having been time-tested in Manitoba weather conditions for several decades. We basically took the standard stucco recipe and nearly tripled the lime content. This made it stickier and caused it to set fairly fast but otherwise was easy to buy, make, and apply. When you use lime-only plaster you must use type-N lime (It’s prepared specially and hard to buy and expensive to ship from California) whereas high-lime stucco can use type-S lime which is readily available, cheap, and very proven. The mixture is not as waterproof as some, it is not as breathable as some, and it is not as flexible as some, but it is a good compromise.

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It is important to apply the plaster in several layers. Typically, two interior and three exterior layers. The idea is to start with the hardest and most brittle layer at the base and then to apply each new layer with a higher sand ratio. This confuses a lot of people. I mean, wouldn’t you want your hardest layer on the surface where the weather gets at it? In fact, this is what too many bale builders have done, and they have paid a price for it. You always want your hardest layer (called the scratch layer or parge coat) on the bottom because it is the best at binding to the bales, benefits the most from the stucco wire reinforcement, will absorb the least water, and crack the most. It’s hard and brittle so it cracks. Its benefits are most realized at the base and the cracking is the least problematic once it is covered.

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The next coat in a three-coat system is called the brown coat. It has more sand and less cement in the mix. In our case the ratio will also have a higher lime:cement ratio, too. This layer is applied much thinner than the scratch coat and is also sponge floated as it is curing. The reason is that the cement and lime aren’t the strength of the stucco. It’s the sand. The cement and lime are a binder, like glue, and hold everything together. The sand is the structure. Sand is an incredibly hard quartz mineral that is massively weather resistant. Plaster sand is rough, uneven chunks of quartz sand, never beach sand that has been worn smooth. This ensures that the sand can key together like a jigsaw puzzle and allows for a scaffold-like strength in the plaster. The sponge floating in the curing process mixes the sand around and makes sure that the smaller and bigger particles key together tightly. This makes the brown coat very strong even while the lower binder content makes it more flexible. If the process is done right and the curing is handled well the brown coat should contain no microcracks at all.

The final coat is the color coat. It is much higher in sand, much lower in cement, and largely uses lime as a binder. It is offering virtually no strength to the system but colors the wall beautifully. We sponge floated our color coat as the second layer on the inside where weather will be minimal.

We very much wished to experiment with straw-clay cob and measure how it compares to stucco for water resistance and hygroscopic breathing but we decided not to on our house. We might do a section on the garage and I will for sure try it on a chicken coop in the future so that with a moisture meter I can compare the strengths and weaknesses.

One last note of warning – whatever plaster you use for a bale house DO NOT use modern acrylic plasters. They are amazing, hearty, and nearly waterproof. But they were designed for modern watertight houses. They don’t breathe. They are essentially a fancy plastic coating. On a bale house, they will clog the breathability of the bales and ensure a musty, rotting house.

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So far we have been very happy with our bale house. It doesn’t smell like a barn, it looks beautiful, the curves around doors and windows worked very well, and the plaster is completely crack-free. It also has the feeling of a hefty house. The walls are thick and filled with heavy bales. That makes a difference. We don’t hear or feel a wind howling outside. We don’t fluctuate temperature or humidity quickly because the bales act like a heat and moisture sink, and the house has a feeling of permeance. They’re not for everyone. I have built conventional houses before and there is at least 25% more labor in this house. If I had hired the labor out I would be broke. But we are happy with the results and the look is exactly what we had hoped for and a large part of that look and feel comes down to a well-executed, well-applied plaster.

Are we there yet?!

November 9th, 2016 a memorable day. A day that’s been anticipated and prepared for like no other. People have paid close attention to, and followed along the journey leading up to this day. Media posts have been made… Moving day! (You didn’t actually think I’d talk about the presidential election, did you?)

Tonight is our first night sleeping in our actual home. After gathering our belongings from across the countryside we are starting to consolidate our belongings. In just over a year we have lived in 8ish “homes”, showered in at least 10 different friends/families showers, had well over 100 different people volunteer and help us along the way, and worked our butts off to get to this point. We are not completely done building our home. We are however settling into the basement as we run the final leg of this building journey. Here’s a sneak peek at our set up:

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We are very much looking forward to not being “the needy friends” and are excited to start paying it forward. We can not thank the people enough who have showed up continually eager to lend a helping hand! We could not have done this with out you.

Straw Bales in Disguise

This past week we hired a backhoe/operator to dig in our main power line to the house. He worked by the house all morning and then came in to ask Jason a question. When he walked in he was very surprised! “Oh, I guess it makes sense now why there’s all the straw outside!” he exclaimed. Although our home has a very different feel to it, the straw bales will not be obvious for very much longer. Outside the house is completely sealed. The parge coat of stucco is complete and windows are all installed!

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The parge coat of stucco is rough. Jason, Jon and myself learnt a lot as we worked. The next coat will be thinner and even out remaining variances. The final coat will be coloured and applied with the desired texture. For now, we are celebrating that the outside is sealed up for winter! It is actually beneficial to wait until spring to apply the following coats. Winter gives the parge coat extra time to cure only making it a stronger base.

Yesterday we completed insulating the roof! It is rated at R50 matching the rating of our straw bale wall insulation value. We originally hoped to use blow in insulation. The pitch of our roof is too steep for this option. Due to the cost of our remaining options we choose bat insulation. It may not be the most pleasant and best option. By layering the bats we felt we were able to reach the insulation rating we wanted.

The interior framing is completely finished. Plumbing is a work in progress. I am happy to announce we have a working toilet, shower and sink! My main requirements before moving in. Electrical work is largely roughed in.

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My dad continues to bless us showing up regularly. We attended a conference this past week and arrived home to our upstairs framed, wired, closets built, kitchen table set up, toilet installed and work area cleaned up.

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If you are wanting to see the inside of our straw bale home before it is sealed up you are running out of time. Our next big project is to stucco the inside.

 

Forever Thankful!

Happy Thanksgiving! Wishing you all a blessed and meaningful thanksgiving season.

Over the past few weeks I’ve often thought about Moses. While facing war and struggling through the real tough and messy battlefield his arms were raised to the Lord. As his arms stayed lifted towards the heavens the Lord fought on his behalf, remaining constant, strong, mighty to save. Have you ever tried lifting your arms towards the heavens. They get heavy! So extremely heavy. It is so tiring in fact it’s nearly impossible to do alone. Luckily Moses had people surrounding him holding up his tired weary arms. No matter how exhausted we are though, God is worthy of all our praise. Through the battle he is mighty to save, sustain, and go before us.

We have worked hard this summer. Rarely stopping except for sleep. After months of this we are feeling exhausted. So very tired. Luckily we have people surrounding us, supporting us, and helping us. Even though we are tired, we are so very thankful. We lift our arms to the Lord and praise his name because he is worthy of all our praise! Whatever little strength we have we give to him. He is faithful.

The Homestead. There is so much to say about all that has happened here! For the people to whom a straw bale house is foreign, let me show you some photos and guide you through a bit of the process we have been through.

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The delivery of these bales seems like ages ago! It was an exciting day none the less. Our bales came locally from Tim Froese. He bales them without chopping the straw. They are baled under 16 percent moisture content, usually being around 12 percent. These bales were stored indoors avoiding any extra moisture risks.

The guys worked extremely hard transferring these bales into the shelter of our house structure. We ended up with 10 tons of bales on the main floor and another 2 tons upstairs. This was the maximum Jason felt comfortable placing in the center of the floor. These guys take bale transfers seriously with leather chaps and all. It didn’t take very long for Jason to realize the necessity they really are. He was left with the waistband of his pants and not much else by the time unloading was complete.

Here’s a glimpse of our house structure before the bales began. Post and beam structures held up our vaulted rafter package. Floor trusses made up the main floor as well as the loft floor. All exterior and interior wood faces were covered with water barrier and blood lathe.

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The bale laying began. Imagine playing with Lego. Now take those techniques and transfer them to stacking bales. Bale stacking involved a lot of re-tying and cutting bales. Each row is staggered and custom bales are made to finish and begin the rows as necessary. There are details, tricks, and a number of steps involved in the process of cutting and re-tying bales. I will get into that another day if people are interested.

Here’s a tiny glimpse into some of the bale building action. Many volunteers showed up at different times. We had such great times connecting with people as we built. There’s something special about conversations and relationships being built while physically working at something. There are too many different volunteers to mention and showcase here on the blog, but once again thank-you all so very much! Along with all of the hard workdays we had some fun as well. One evening we hung sheets on the straw bale wall. Adults and kids climbed the ladder up into the loft and we all enjoyed a potluck while watching a movie projected on the bale wall (sheets). During the week of my dear Grandma’s funeral a bunch of relatives came over and we all enjoyed a brunch together. Uncle Pat set up a walk by coffee shop in the window with his freshly home roasted beans. We all enjoyed the beautiful day eating outside on the bales.

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Here’s a few photo’s to show you the progress as we infilled the post and beams with solid bale walls.

After the bales were done being stacked every square inch of the bales were covered with stucco wire, inside and out. Stucco wire was attached using an air stapler to the solid post structures. Before attaching it to the next post structure we used pitch forks to tension the wire so that it was as tight as possible with minimal sagging or loose areas. After the stucco wire was completed, stitching began.

Whenever a new row of stucco wire began we overlapped it with the previous row. Wherever there was an overlap seaming occurred. We tightly wove both rows of stucco wire together so there was no separation possible. Sewing an entire house together is as crazy as it sounds! We have been stitching for about a month. When I say we, I mean many people or 11 needles have been stitching from morning until dark daily for weeks on end. This is an important step in building a bale home. The bale twine is sewn back and forth holding the stucco wire on the inside, the bales, and the stucco wire on the outside together. This pulls all of the stucco wire in tightly. It helps straighten out the walls. It makes sure the wall acts as one solid individual structure and there is no separation. When this process is done properly and thoroughly it truly provides a great base for lime stucco to be applied on and can avoid any cracking in the stucco. It is also integral for any areas that are “stuffed” to be held firmly as part of the wall. I wish I could say that stitching is completed. Unfortunately it is not yet done. We have 2/3rds of the east wall yet that require this time consuming job.

Wiring a straw bale home like nearly everything requires a lot of pre-thought. All electrical runs were carefully thought out and calculated before any of the bales were laid. We personally chose to use conduit to run the wire through. It is not necessary but with all the sewing required we thought it was beneficial to have the extra protection. The wires were run beneath our floor trusses and then led vertical directly to where needed. They followed the post and beam structures and are deeply embedded in the straw bales.

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In the photo about you can see the straw bale, a bit of stitching, the water proofing membrane, blood lathe, stucco wire and electrical outlet all coming together.

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The picture above is of the south side of our home. There will be a screen room coming off of this side eventually. Having doors and windows is very exciting. This is one area where suppliers have had issues. We only received half of our windows weeks after they should have arrived. Hopefully the remaining windows will arrive this week.

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Yesterday we began stucco! This is extremely exciting. Tony is a friend of ours from church who has years of experience in this area. Although Jason spent many hours researching stucco application research is different than actually doing the job. Although Tony is too busy to help us actually do this job he did set us up with his stucco mixer and tools to get this job done. He came by yesterday to show us the proper mix and give us a speedy hands-on class of different tricks and tips he knows. Tomorrow we will start to tackle this gigantic project and try to get the parge coat on! Stucco needs 24-48 hours without freezing to cure. We have 14 days to complete this job before Tony needs his stucco supplies returned. Once the parge coat is complete it will continue to cure until next spring at which time we will complete this job. We’re pushing very hard. We would very much like to be moved into our home before the temperature hits -2. The goal is to get a bathroom plumbed in and framed, insulate the roof, install the remaining windows and have the parge coat of stucco complete. The remaining work after that point will be completed over time as we live in our home.

 

Tribute

This week I had planned to write here and tell you about all sorts of things happening at the homestead. I had planned to tell you all about the stucco mixer we were borrowed. I had planned to talk about the movie night we had projected on the bales. I had planned to tell you in detail how we’ve begun “sewing” the bales and stucco wire together. I had planned to tell you of the risks of having a thick floor full of straw and the sprained ankle Jason incurred due to the lack of importance we placed on regular sweeping at times. I had planned to tell you about our incredible volunteers that keep showing up day after day. Perhaps about the stairs that were installed, window shipments that were delayed, bale forts that were built. One week feels like a year. All of these things I mentioned as well as many others have all faded to the background.

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Today we said good bye to my dear sweet Grandma Friesen. Oh how I love this woman!! She was a HUGE part of my life. Selfishly I really don’t want to experience life with out her (not in a suicidal way.. Just in a way that wishes she could remain such a wonderful part of my life here). She is in a better place though. Free of all pain. She received her wish and went home to be with Jesus! Like she told me when I visited her in the hospital, the next time we meet it will be in heaven.

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I’m usually not a crazy emotional person, but today I have grieved and cried.

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Grandma was so very strong. She was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. She loved every single one of her family members whole heartedly. She gave generously. She prayed daily for us. She sent regular notes of encouragement. Regularly checking in on me, I knew I was never forgotten. Grandma was dependable, a constant and solid source of encouragement. As we built she came and brought cooking and baking. She processed peaches for me and put them in her freezer knowing I didn’t have time for that this year. In the past she would come over and keep me company while I canned, always helping with what she could. Cuddling Hannah, folding laundry, passing on canning advice, prepping veggies in the screen room together. Stopping by for a cup of tea. The visits went both ways. Grandma’s door was always open. I often popped in unexpected. I spent many days in her kitchen cooking and baking with her. She took Hannah on scooter rides and read to her. We were always welcomed warmly and hosted generously bring lavished with love and baking.

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Grandma and I had many things in common. Among some of which were being a pastor’s wife and growing, canning and processing home grown food. She was such a huge encouragement to me, and wise in many things. I learned a lot from you grandma. You will be so very very missed.

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Taking Care of Business

Hello again! I hope you’re doing well. I’m overdue for an update. People have been asking, and I have found it hard to find the time to actually sit down and write. Generally, this is my favorite time of the year. This year however I feel the speed of winter approaching like no other. The pressure is on. Our deadlines are tight.

I look forward to living in a straw bale home. They definitely are a very labour intensive way to build a home. The work is fun. It is very enjoyable building. There is work for every skill level. A combination of this being a unique way to build a home, as well as our budget means we are personally building every step along the way. I can guarantee we would not even have a chance of living in our home by winter if it weren’t for all the volunteers who have helped us along the way! So… THANK-YOU, THANK-YOU, THANK-YOU!!

We have made a lot of progress since my last blog post. All the post and beam structures are standing. Windows and doors are framed. Second floor truss’ are installed. Rafters have been raised, placed, secured. Tin roofing is nearly finished. Tyvek and blood lath are being attached where needed. The chimney has been partially framed. Earth has been leveled. That is an extremely brief and fast summary of hundreds of hours of work that have taken place. There are stories to tell at every step of these processes.

I threw together a short video for you.

 

Every time I drive up to our home I am always surprised how grand it looks! When we planned our home out on paper the idea was to build a smallish home that was large enough to entertain. The square foot print of our home is 900 square feet. Along with additional space in the loft which is not a full second story. It has been shocking to see it evolve in real life. Every step along the way it seems larger, grander and more spacious than we had imagined. It is elevated up on a hill which adds to the impression. The steep vaulted roof line also contribute to it’s grandness.

The straw workshop we had planned fell through. I will admit I was relieved at the time. We officiated a wedding the Saturday before the workshop as well as a wedding immediately after when the workshop should have been. Our straw bale instructor tore his Achilles tendon and had to undergo surgery. The notice for the work shop was extremely short which contributed to nobody signing up. All factors combined it was pretty clear and easy to cancel the event. It was important to us to have a roof on before the bales came. Any increased risk of moisture in the bales is something we strongly want to avoid.

Currently we are on budget and at least a full month behind schedule. The time is not possible to make up on our own. We are beginning with bales as soon as it has dried out again (possibly tomorrow???). Before we stack the bales wire mesh is attached tightly to the outside of our home. We then stack the bales which includes retying and cutting bales to fit exactly. We stagger the placement of the bales as they are stacked. After this the bales are trimmed on the interior walls to make a smooth level wall. Conduit wiring is inset into the bales before they are sealed. Wire mesh is attached tightly to the interior walls. At this time sewing begins. My Grandpa Friesen has hand made bale needles for us. At least two people are required for this time consuming job although we have enough supplies for sixteen sewers. One person stands in the inside of the home, one person on the outside of the home. Using bale twine and the bale needle we sew the entire wall (bale, interior and exterior wire mesh) tightly together. After everything is tightly secured stucco can begin. The lime stucco needs to be applied prior to frost. It requires two full days frost free to cure properly. September was originally the month we had hoped to be applying stucco, giving ourselves a month to complete this job.

I am in love with this homestead. It is so peaceful and beautiful here. I can’t wait to begin using this space to host and entertain again. We have already enjoyed having groups of people here as they help us build. On a side note, my baby starts kindergarten this week!! That’s all for now. We welcome all help. We appreciate all your support. Feel free to share your thoughts and questions with us.

STRAW BALE WORKSHOP!

Here it is folks!

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We are excited to announce our upcoming workshop! Camping is available on site along with toilets. Food is provided during the workshop.

Pricing is not accurate for close family members and friends.

We do have a limited number of spaces available to ensure the best opportunity possible to gain insight and knowledge from Paul Reimer the straw bale expert we have hired. Please send us information about yourself and why you are interested in joining us to insure your spot!