We’re Building an Straw Bale Eco-house

Here’s a little back story. Part 1: Sean has always wanted to build his own personal ski lodge/home, complete with dark timber, a Great Room with a roaring open fireplace, and a second floor balcony overlooking it all.

This may be a slight exaggeration of his dream.

Part 2: I have always wanted to live in a big, old farmhouse, with ancient, scarred wooden tables, exposed beams, and sun-bleached timber floors.

Exposed beams and high ceilings

I’m such a hippy.

Part 3: If we would’ve found a well-insulated home that was fuel-efficient to run or sensible to retro-fit with eco-minded functionality, we surely would’ve grown to love a house even if it didn’t fulfill the fantasies of our combined dream home. However, the more we looked, the more we found houses that had puzzling layouts, or typical Kiwi insulation (i.e. little to no insulation), or no way to keep the house warm in the winter without multiple fires and heat pumps.

With each house that missed the mark with us, Sean became more and more eager to realize his dream of building his own house, the one he’d been imagining his whole life, the one out of his boyhood fantasies. “If I could build a house, it’d have a secret passageway from a downstairs room to an upstairs library!” he said once. I have to admit, I agree.


I, on the other hand, became more and more eager to build an environmentally sustainable house. I found myself Pinteresting my nights away to the sound of the rugby whistle in the next room as Sean caught up on his endless collection of taped rugby games. (In case you’re envisioning Sean watching rugby games with a whistle in his mouth, I say to you, “Great image!” But sadly the whistle belongs to the ref… on the TV.) The Tiny House movement compelled me, as did Earthship homes. Should we go off the grid? Should we have a living roof? Could the four of us live in an ingeniously and efficiently designed shipping container?

Tiny houses-Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I love the minimalistic simplicity of these. Yes, I believe I could live in one. For a short time, alone! lol

(I think the answer to that last question is probably no.)

Anyway, back to the more realistic questions: Could we completely sustain ourselves with sun and rain? How eco can we afford to build?

We went to visit some new friends who have a straw bale house. Our mindset when we arrived was the same as it had been for months: Plan A is to build our own eco home; if it’s too expensive to build eco-friendly, Plan B is to settle on a house to purchase. Upon leaving our friends’ house, there was no longer a Plan B. We were building our own straw bale house. There was no other option.

Their home was cozy and warm and yet airy. Their house was a structure, but it was also the architectural equivalent to an embrace. The beautiful, thick, natural walls, the rounded edges, the earthy colors–it felt very solid and inviting and like the best, homiest home we’d ever been in. The house felt a part of the land. It was wonderful and suddenly we knew that this was the kind of house that we would build. Plan A or Bust!

As we talked to our new friend, Aaron, a stone mason by trade, we learned that he’d worked on the build for his own house. Then he’d helped out on another friend’s straw bale house, and then another and another. “So you must know who the local expert is here in Gizzy that we should talk to,” said I. Umm…duh.  He’s one of the local experts. (Face. Palm.) Through the work on these projects, he has compiled a crew of technicians, builders, and contractors that work well together. He offered to point us in the direction of all of these people. “Or we could just hire you as our project manager?” we countered a conversation or two later.  Thankfully, he agreed.

Let’s back up a bit. Here are a couple common questions: “How do you build a house with straw?” and “Haven’t you read ‘The Three Little Pigs’?” So you build a timber structure. But then instead of layering in conventional insulation, you stack and compact bale after bale all the way up to the roof. Then instead of siding or weather board on the outside or drywall on the inside, you coat the straw, inside and out, with a plaster mix of lime, clay, and possibly something else. (Despite the research I’ve done, I’m clearly NOT the expert.)  You can hand-plaster it on but we’ll probably opt for the faster method which is to cover everything in chicken wire and then machine-spray on the plaster. From the outside, it looks much like an adobe home. And if done correctly, there’s no extra fire hazard than a conventional timber home. In fact I’ve read from some sources that a well-built straw bale home can take longer to catch on fire since there’s not enough oxygen in the straw. Like trying to light a ream of computer paper on fire, while flammable, it takes a long time to ignite. (So I’ve heard.)

So why straw bale? Why not rammed earth (packing in layers of sand and gravel and clay to create the walls)? Firstly, straw is GREAT insulation. And in a place with a mild climate that still gets near freezing in the winter, we still need to insulate. And straw bales are known for retaining the daytime warmth in the winter and keeping the house cool in the summer. Additionally, straw is a natural waste by-product of agriculture and there’s no shortage of agriculture here in Gizzy. We will be attempting to locally source our building materials throughout this build and we might be able to locally source 100% of our straw here in Gizzy. Straw bale homes also “breathe.” While the walls are waterproof and packed tight enough to deter fire, moisture doesn’t get trapped inside. Straw bale homes have low rates of mold and mildew growing inside, and are good for asthmatics. Lastly, the straw bale walls provide many opportunities for artistic detailing that give a house a one-of-a-kind identity, like rounded corners,

window seat

alcoves, small knick-knack-sized ones or big bed-sized ones,

bed alcove

built in shelves,

Inset shelves

and glass walls.

glass bottle wall

So fast-forward a few months. We bought a section, a beautiful 1-acre “bit of dirt” just outside of town, 2 kms passed the hospital in the “country.” In fact, this one right here.01

We then began working on the design with Shane Kingsbeer, the architect recommended to us by Aaron. We’ve been very happy with Shane (highly recommend!). And after talking with him, Aaron, and Phil, the builder, we began to hone in on our design. Our original sketches incorporated Sean’s hope for a Great Room and a balcony and my desire to live in a farmhouse. So we came up with a compromise: living in a barn. Something like this!

Beautiful open space. Verbouwde woonboerderij | VIVA VIDA

But alas, it was not meant to be. It turns out that with a straw bale house, it becomes significantly more costly to build an entire second floor. Like a lot more costly. And when you build two stories (storeys), the pressure it puts on the dirt below the house is significant, which of course incurs more cost for extra soil reports and ultimately a more expensive foundation. So we said goodbye to the second floor balcony, the multi-floor secret passageway, and Thora’s favorite dream feature–a laundry chute!

So back to the design: Instead of building up, we’re building out. Our house is long and skinny, with the long side facing the strong north sun (we’re in the Southern Hemisphere remember). Here is how our proposed house will sit on our section. I’ve included the garage/in-law apartment that we also hope to build as soon as Sean’s parents move out here permanently. The driveway will enter near the upper left-hand corner of the image below, at the northwest edge of our section. The driveway will curve toward the long, northeast border and then end in the space between the house and the garage/apartment.

two buildings with border

First, our design adopts the easiest and cheapest way to heat our house: Passive Solar Heating. The sun will come through all these north-facing windows and the concrete floors will absorb the heat and retain it. Concrete is a mixed bag for eco-building. On it’s own, concrete contains materials, mainly Portland Cement, that leave a significant carbon footprint behind. However, over the life of our house, our concrete slab floor will allow us to use very little green house gases to heat and cool our home. While we were hoping for a rammed earth floors (all natural materials layered and compacted repeatedly and then sealed with a resin), it was cost-prohibitive for the size of our house. We might be able to do a portion of rammed earth and a portion of concrete. Fingers crossed.

To keep the floors warm, we will install underfloor heating. Prior to pouring the concrete floors, pipes will be put in. Then a pump will circulate hot water through the pipes, warming the floor. Our plan includes solar panels on the roof. These will heat all of our water, both for showers and taps, but also the water that is pumped through the floor. Lastly, we’ll install a closed, stove-top fire, which is much more efficient to run than an open fire since you adjust the oxygen input to control the temperature and speed in which the wood burns. And in fact, after talking with other straw bale home owners, it seems that the fire may not be necessary but a dozen times over winter since the walls do such a good job of retaining the sun’s heat. So with the solar panels, in addition to providing us our electricity, we should be able to heat the water for the underfloor heating and run the pump that circulates the hot water, without using electricity from the grid.

While Sean was sad to see his balcony go, it was a sensible compromise to make. Especially because we have so many of our other wishes for our Dream Home still intact! And seriously, if we were going to build our Dream Home, we were going to include everything we ever wanted. I mean, why wouldn’t you? If they have to be cut, they’ll be cut down the road. But one should dream big, right? And of course, by “big” I don’t mean building a large house for the sake of building large. I mean, we have the chance to build a house that’s thoughtful and responsible, in tuned to how we use the various spaces. Yes, it’s roomy. But there is purpose behind those rooms. We hope to build something to last our lifetime and even our kids’ lifetimes. We hope to create a lovely and welcoming space to spend our days as a family and to entertain visitors for the evening, for a weekend, or for a month! So here’s where we are with our dream… at this very moment… right now. So before we’ve compromised anything else to our stretched-thin budget, let me highlight the details we love about the plan for our new house. (Fingers crossed all these details stay where they should.)

Here’s a close-up of the layout. (We have lots of appreciation for Shane’s work. He is great to work with; he’s been very patient and receptive to our goals and ideas while adhering to sound and budget-friendly architecture.)

You can see the two separate living areas, the common living area and guest room are on the left and the more private parts of the house are on the right. The entrance is on the south side of the house.

house plan with border

* We have a self-contained guest room with private bathroom. This was a priority for us because we wanted to build a house that could be roomy enough for long-term visitors or grandparents. Or both at the same time!

* We have a large, open-plan living area, which is also a priority. We wanted to give more space to the common areas to encourage togetherness. The Dining Room walks out onto a covered, year-round deck with a louvered awning (Gizzy is a great place for 3-season, al fresco dining), while the Living Room doors to the west, open onto what will be a small patio with a spa pool/hot tub. (We’re opting for a spa pool instead of a pool.)

* We have a single-purpose TV room (it’s called a Media Room on the plans, but we’ll always know it as the TV room) which will work to remove the TV from the center of the living space and can be closed off when not in use. We love the fact that in our current rental, the TV is in the front lounge, a room we only use when we have something to watch. We’re thrilled with this development; our kids don’t watch TV out of boredom. We wanted to replicate this in our new house.

* It will have a raised ceiling and exposed beams to suggest a Great Room.

* We have a pantry (luxury of luxuries), big closets, and a mud room/laundry room.

* We have a study/library.

This is the “front” of the house. This is what you’ll see when you drive in:

front of house with border

The circle window is the study/library. It is in the center of the house and breaks up the two living areas. That room on the north side and the entryway on the south side will be the only parts of the house not walled with straw.

This is the “back” of the house. You’ll come around the side and park in front of the “front” door, which is really in the “back” of the house.

entrance with border

Here are the elevations of the four sides.

Elevations with border

So that’s where we are with things. Still early stages. I’ll continue to post updates as progress is made and to document the journey of building our own eco-home. Stay tuned as the adventure unfolds!










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1 Response to We’re Building an Straw Bale Eco-house

  1. Shelby says:

    Cody and I want to build an Eco-House too! So glad you found a solution to your insulation problems. We plan to do the built-in book shelves for sure. Can’t wait to the final product! Good luck building!

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