Money Saving Strategies for Straw Bale Construction

Written by Andrew Morrison

money symbol in eyeI recently wrote to someone who is trying to find an inexpensive way to build with bales. The intention is to wrap existing houses with bales in the cheapest way possible. There are no codes that need to be met on the reservation in question and a few dollars saved on each house could mean that one more home gets retrofitted each year. As it stands now, at least one person dies from the cold every year on this reservation. It’s time to stop that from happening.

I have outlined some money saving strategies for straw bale construction to help cut costs while still keeping the safety and integrity of the buildings. Please add your thoughts to mine in hopes that we can together find ways to help save lives and improve the quality of living for the people of this reservation, and hopefully beyond.

1. Use earth plasters harvested directly from the land on which the house sits if possible. Check out my blog for a description of how to check the soils for plaster ability.

2. Build rubble trench foundations. You can use free compacted rock, or free rip rap (old, waste concrete from other job sites which can often be delivered for free as it saves the people getting rid of it dump costs) in the trench and then sand bags filled with dirt and a little lime or cement for reinforcement should be placed on top of the trench and tamped/compacted to keep everything level.

Place some fencing or other material under the top course of sand bags that will stretch up over the first half of the bale course. Tie this to the rest of the mesh you plan to use on the building in order to tie everything to the foundation or you can use bamboo on either side of the bales to tie things together. Tie through the bales to the bamboo on either side and then attach the fence to the bamboo with steel ties.

3. Dip the bales. If you don’t attach the bales to the house directly in an attempt to make the changes a bit more temporary (as you mentioned in your email), don’t leave more than 1″ in between the two materials in order to maintain the insulation value. Dip the bales (back side against the gap) in clay slip to mitigate any fire risk.

4. Be sure to cover the top of the bales with a roof extension. Simply attaching another mini roof UNDER the existing roof overhang and draining it away from the bales with a 2′ or so overhang will suffice.

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18 Responses

  1. My biggest concern would be with the windows and doors. Since the bales are 18″ wide, how are you going to waterproof the “window sills” and the rest of the opening (especially with an earthen plaster). Even with a 2 foot overhang wind driven rain will get to the walls. Also that is going to really cut the light in the house, but I guess you will just have to live with that.

  2. Good point Harry. They might have to build very basic window bucks, like in a load bearing house, and move the windows to the exterior of the walls. Hope you’re well my friend! Has your plaster sand all been cooked up?

  3. Hi,

    I’ve spent some time studying alternate housing approaches. This one would need some work but here goes.

    I own an old book called “Shelter”. They tend to use recyclable materials. I can easily see adding skylights of old car windows and windshields. Definitely framing and waterproofing considerations here. A sky light can give you up to five times the light of a window, if I remember correctly.

    This brings up the other question, of course…straw for the walls, but what do you do for the roof? A huge heat loss area.

    Just thinking out loud folks…


  4. I’ve lived in Mor Gran Sou counties and am now in MN. I’m interested in linking to others interested in building new communities of modest homes, perhaps rejuvenating exsiting prairie towns. I may try to come to the SD build next summer.

  5. Hello Andrew, I have been interested in retrofitting for several years and have written you with several questions on the subject. I have several older houses in the SW USA and all suffer from poor insulation due to block construction, even the newer one I currently live in. If you produce a video on retrofitting or have a workshop on the subject, I am in! I would also like to volunteer to work some retrofit projects on reservations in Northern NM or AZ. Do you know where one can find such opportunities?

    Thank you.

  6. I used a solution from a blustery, wet climate for my old homestead. It isn’t pretty, but it is inexpensive and keeps the light. We stretch plastic sheeting over our uninsulated windows and staple on the side of the moldings. You can leave it up year-round if it is left unstapled at top and bottom to prevent mold. You can reinforce the staples with strips of cardboard, and that will make the sheeting last longer but there are holes in the home’s exterior paintseal afterwards. I don’t understand condensation barriers, but couldn’t one concievably blow in a layer of loose straw to walls and roof and tack straw to underneath a house somehow using misc sheets of fabric or other material? we sealed our ac vents off too (once we no longer used it) with scrunched plastic grocery bags and another layer of plastic sheeting cut a bit larger than vent and held in place by the fit.

  7. I read an article last year in Mother I think it was – where this man in CA wrapped his mother’s house in straw bale. There were pictures of it and he framed the windows once the bales were up with wood, slanted to let gravity work to drain the external window sills, waterproofed and then plastered or whatever. I tried to find the article but of course since I am looking for it I can’t find it ;-}

  8. I get frequent phone calls and mail from Native American charities asking for $ to heat the absurd structures folks on the reservations are trying to make it through winters in. Now, I tell every caller to start building with natural, available materials for good insulation and to bring in some people to show them how to do this, and ditto for permaculture, which can turn desert into oasis.

    I tell them that as The Economy tanks, even those who have been sending them donations will be in trouble and that they must learn to do things differently if they are gonna survive. Some of them are starting to listen. Others clearly just want today’s donation to address today’s emegencies.

    I’m so glad to hear of the program you mention! I have no expertise to offer, but I send blessings aplenty. This work is so needed.

    Oh. Perhaps you can share some information with me, that I can pass on to these callers? Both regarding people they can get in touch with in order to learn what they need to know and regarding techniques. I’m wondering, for instance, if it wouldn’t make sense for them to dig down into the earth a ways and use the dirt from the excavation to cover the house they build, which would then have some natural insulation as well as some heat from the 54 degree earth. Good idea or not?

    Shivani Arjuna

  9. The main point where a house looses heat is at the top.
    I would insulate the attic with a layer of bales and cover with wood or whatever is needed for fireproofing and then-
    instead of wrapping in bales opt for a thick clay plaster with a high straw content-this seems better inside-cures sick-house syndrome as well,but will do on the outside.
    I agree with Harry on the light issue,but want to point out that the needed extension of the roof might skyrocket the costs and timeschedule.
    I am in it for affordability from the start!

  10. Sounds interesting. I once saw that someone had put strawbales on the inside of a cement block structure. Has anyone seen the use of interior straw bales on old mills and factories that are being converted to residences and businesses?

  11. The biggest concern I have with this is the weight of the bales overhead. I still think that the cost to increase the framing would be more than the savings of the straw insulation. I could be wrong though…

  12. Instead of wraping a house in bales, wouldn’t it make more sense to just build a 20 by 24 addition that can be properly heated? A standard, commen design would buid fast with good quality. Over and over.
    Many of the components could be prefabricated to speed construction. Jigs would allow low skilled labor to build trusses, windows and doors.

  13. I have a 14×60 older trailer that i am wanting to add onto with straw bale then retrofit the outside of the trailer with straw bale and stucco so it will all be insulated and match when we are done.I am wanting to add 2 bedrooms a living area and some much needed closet space. The trailer is from 1970 and doesn’t have much storage at all. It needs a new roof so i was thinking of doing a new roof that covered both parts.I feel pretty sure that this would be economically better and lots less than a new double wide. Plus better ecologically. any comments from anyone would be great.

  14. Hi Wendy. Do a search on the blog (at the top) for retrofitting with bales, or something like that. There is at least one article about this on the blog that should be helpful for you to read. Your idea is definitely an option and there are some details you’ll want to know before you go too far down the road to make sure you do it right. Best of luck and let me know if you need help as you go.

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