The post where I break the news that the straw isn’t happening

One day, building a straw bale house will be easy. Today is not that day…

We knew that we would have to make sacrifices and that building a home from scratch would come with a seemingly never-ending list of complications and drama. Here are the ups and downs that have taken us up to today.

Back in December and January, we were waiting on our local council to grant us a building consent. This was dragging out, mostly because an alternative building method needs to be raked through with a fine-tooth comb. That “fine-tooth comb” was a peer reviewer up in Auckland, to whom our local resource consent office had sent our application. I’ll glaze over this part because it puts me in a bad mood just thinking about it (the peer review’s long summer holiday, followed by long stretches of not answering phone calls or emails from our architect).

Meanwhile, we’re all starting to get antsy, in particular our builder and his crew, who had scheduled our project for their first project of 2015. He and his guys were out at our site doing everything they could, shy of starting the project — pegging out the site, confirming with us the real-life layout of the house, realizing a flaw in the water run-off plans that was ultimately corrected, anything they could do.

When building with straw, you have a window in late summer when the straw has been harvested and there is relatively dry weather in order to stack the straw. You don’t want to stack the straw over the wet months or else you risk the straw getting wet and rotting inside your walls. So we were all watching the weeks slip away one by one and fearing that our window was going to arrive and we weren’t going to be ready.

And then one day, our “straw guy” got a lead on some straw. You might even remember me posting about it. (Sigh.) He and Sean went out to a local farm and stacked and carted away, and then re-stacked in a friend-of-a-friend’s warehouse 300 bales of straw. Woo hoo. We were getting close now. Half of the straw, but it’s a start!

Then finally our architect convinced our local council to issue us a foundation consent, due to the endless delays of the peer reviewer, so at least we could get started while our architect and council worked out the minor details that were holding up our consent. Great! Let’s set the last piece in motion: the bank loan.

And this is where it all fell apart and where our naivete at being first-time home-builders was revealed. See, the bank would lend us 80% of the value of the house. Great! We had the builder’s contract and saw the price. And it was high, but it included the costs to put the services (septic, water catchment, electricity) on our section. And it included the slightly higher labor costs to build with straw (plastering the internal and external walls that give everything the rounded look takes a long time in building terms). But we had the 20% down payment. We could afford it.  And, most importantly, this was going to be our dream house. We were willing to pay more for the house we want, that we will live in for the next 30 years.

Okay, let’s do this! Let’s get the builder’s prices to the bank-approved valuer (they work with 3 private valuers in town), get his approval that the costs are all valid, that this is what it costs to build this house… Wait, what? That’s not what the valuer is doing? (This is where my naivete came in.)

The valuer doesn’t double-check the value of the cost to build. The valuer is finding the price that the bank could sell the house for if we foreclosed on our mortgage. The valuer assigns the future house a value as if it were on the market. What would a house this size, on a section this size, in this part of town, go for? What would people pay for this house, once it was built? And — here is the kicker — because none of the current straw bale homes have changed owners yet (they’re all pretty new), there’s no data that shows that a straw bale home, in all its soft edges and warmth (tangible heat retention / insulation), in all its eco-friendliness and efficiency, is actually worth more in real terms. The straw walls and solar power and solar hot water, and low heating and cooling costs all add appeal, but have yet to prove that they add value.

And so the value came in significantly less than the cost build. Really significantly. Which meant, that the bank would loan us 80% of the value of the house. Which meant that we would have to come up with 20% of that value, PLUS the difference between the value and the actual cost. This was so unexpected for us that we didn’t even know how to process this. We’re talking, triple the down payment, which was just laughable.

We found out on the Friday afternoon, a mere hours before heading to Lake Waikaremoana, a wonderful retreat in the middle of Te Urewera National Park. On walks, and late into the night, we talked it through. Could we build half of the house now, with the straw we had and then in a few years, build the second half? Ultimately that would cost us even more, given the cost of bringing all the tradespeople out two times, rather than one. Could we modify the design so that half was straw and half conventional? Doubtful. Could we shrink the house? But we need the space now when it will be all of us under one roof. Will the fact that we have to run services onto the section, no matter what size/style, prohibit us from ever building on it, i.e. do we sell the section.

Whoa. Now that’s a step too far. In our conversations, it became clear that giving up the section was not a sacrifice that we were willing to make. We’d spent a little time out there, walking the pegged-out perimeter. We’d listened to the quiet. We’d taken in the peace of the surrounding trees, the bird life, the big hills to the north. We’d felt so lucky that we’d bought it. That was where we saw ourselves. Would we sell the section. No, not yet. We were going to stick it out, and find ourselves out there on our own little piece of the world. We’d grown to love that little piece.

So we’ve begun the process of modifying where we can. The straw walls are being erased and replaced with extra-thick walls (150mm thick instead of the standard 110mm). But most of the other features will hopefully remain. Passive solar heating with all the North-facing windows, the poured concrete floor for retaining thermal mass, and solar hot water and power are all still part of the plan. At the moment, we’re waiting for the architect to re-draw the plans and for the builder to re-cost the project (everything was contingent on those ultra-thick walls). If we can get the costings down near the value, we’ll be good to go. But that’s a big if.

And so we wait. At one point, it felt like we were a mere 48 hours away from breaking ground. And then it felt like we would have to sell the section and try to find a house that we could love as much as the one in our imagination. Now, we’re back to somewhere in between those two extremes. We knew building a home would have it’s challenges. But somehow we didn’t expect it to be like this. I was more thinking something like “If I have to decide on one more drawer pull, I’m going to LOSE IT!” But I guess it’s not really a challenge if you see it coming.

Our one consolation in giving up our dream to build a strawbale home? It will be so much easier when we only want to build a little one-bedroom strawbale hobbit cottage when we’ve retired and it’s time to downsize.

Stay tuned as the adventures (hopefully much more boring and predictable) unfold.


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1 Response to The post where I break the news that the straw isn’t happening

  1. Shelby says:

    Wow. What a huge dissapointment. I am impressed with your overall optimistic attitude. My husband and I want to build a hobbit-hole-esque-eco-friendly-straw-house-rounded-edges place too. They are adorable and perfect in every way. Good luck with your endeavors!

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