Sabine’s Straw Bale Diary Part 2 & 3

Written by Andrew Morrison


woman and grand pianoWe recently came into contact with the wonderful, dynamic and hilarious Sabine, a piano teacher (and concert pianist!).  Born and raised in Germany, she and her husband both live in Australia now.  We were so taken by her enthusiasm and story that we asked if she would be willing to share her experience with building her dream straw bale house by writing diary entries for us to share with you.  We see her as an inspiration and example of one taking the plunge to live out a huge dream.  As she says, “I think if I can do it, an almost 50 year old woman with no building experience, everyone can”.  Here is her second entry…

Reality Check!

Again, difficult weeks!

For the construction certificate we have to obtain from the councul we have to nominate a plumber.  I started to look around. On a positive note, I was a little bit afraid whether or not I would be able to communicate properly with people involved in our project (practising piano is a lonely job, not good to develop people skills), and my English is far away of being perfect, but all went well, I was able to made myself heard and understood. That’s the good news.

The bad one is, well, you won’t believe the way the plumbers talk about each other. Fishmongers couldn’t be worse! Okay, I pushed it a little bit, just mention a plumbers name and see what happens… It would be funny if I would not need to sort it all out. I’m afraid that some of the stories about apprentices wrongly connecting solar hot water systems and blown up manifolds are true. If something goes wrong it seems that the law system is not really helpful. Besides, I haven’t received (although requested) a single quote, yet. What does this tell one about their reliability??

Of course, there is a qualification Australian plumbers (and all other trades) need to have, unfortunately it doesn’t mean they know what they are doing (that’s my personal opinion), just before we moved to Australia there was a scandal regarding wrongly installed roof insulation and here in town a installer of solar hot water systems went broke (and made some people very unhappy…).

I know someone I can trust fully to install the plumbing (he comes from Canada!).  Problem is, he hasn’t got the from the council required Australian qualifications.

Which leaves me with?


I’ve listened to a lot of J.S. Bach, lately…

We will have a stand alone (electrical) solar system and solar hot water with (bottled) gas back up for domestic use and the underfloor heating. A good hot water storage is crucial.  You will not believe the “ideas” I’ve heard about storing that hot water/heat! Remarkably shy of the light of science. She’ll be right, mate!

oh, dear…

…and Mozart…

I asked about sub floor insulation for houses for our area. What I’ve got was kind of well, our fathers didn’t do it and our father’s fathers didn’t do it, either…

I went into the internet, gladly someone from Tasmania shared his experience and search results with me, THANKS!

A kind soul transferred my house to google Sketchup and gave me an introduction how to use it to enable me to find the right length of the eaves.  (You can introduce sun angles to your drawings).  Great! I did my maths and checked it all over on the drawing. Then I had the feeling it looked somehow odd, so I checked the hight of the walls, they were wrong! Boy, was I scared!! Did I do something wrong in the design??  It ended with that I build the house straw bale by straw bale on Sketchup. Took me until 4:00am in the morning. BUT MY MEASUREMENTS ARE RIGHT!!

Then I had a meeting with our structural engineer. We choose him carefully. We wanted someone to trust and a local, well known to the council. He said he had worked with straw bale house designs before. The first problem I encountered was that he didn’t know the shear forces of straw bale walls.

I asked him to contact the company we thought we would build with, they didn’t know it either ! I asked their recommended structural engineer to help me out with this number and he said: Enough! (I was glad I refused switching to him as suggested by the straw bale company!) Unfortunately I couldn’t find the adequate information on the internet. Our structural engineer then “found a way around it” and braced the walls. Problem solved, I thought.

Last meeting he told me he would need the numbers, and by the way, where should the roof rest, on the inside of the walls or on the outside(gabled roof)? Would that not put one sided pressure on the walls, or compress the walls where the rafters meet the top plate? I asked how it is done for “normal” houses and was told the outer side of the roof beams rests directly on top of the wall structure and the inner side would be supported by a beam. “Why can’t we do that for a straw bale house”, I said, “and for the parts with the shed roof, maybe we can run beams horizontally from one side of the building to the other (I need something to attach the ceiling to, anyway), it would form a triangle with one supporting wall and the roof rafters. If the weight is a concern, why not use high beams (That is engineered wooden beams, very strong but light). Or, I’ve seen that on tv, roofing panels made from two wooden plates(?), connected with metal webbing, the men handled them with ease (light weight), could we use these?”


He then suggested it might be better to insert posts to hold up the roof in every wall longer than one meter. THAT REALLY SCARED ME OUT OF MY BOOTS!!! It gave me the feeling that he didn’t know what it was all about. So next day I went back to his office and told him exactly that (amongst other things). I kept my voice low and pleasant but I did tell him that I would find another structural engineer if he didn’t feel up to the job! And I refused to put in post in every wall longer than one meter!!  urrg!

If everything goes wrong SING!!!

I then remembered seeing a link to research regarding structural information on Andrew & Gabriella Morrison’s website. Dear Andrew, dear Gabriella, thank you so much for your well organized website and all the information contained, it helped a lot!  I past it on and tomorrow I will go and pick up my drawings. At the end of this week we will attend a straw bale raising working bee organized by Mark, our builder friend. I will closely discuss these plans with him!!

The straw bale company whose method we will use to build our house didn’t respond to me asking for advice and answering my questions regarding the design and practicality of the design to build in straw bale. I tried I made it easy for them, sent them all my plans (some twice, one to be send back to me), and asked clear questions. It’s now 9 weeks ago. It’s not a curtesy call, we have a contract. I could be more persistent, but I’m not sure I want to be.

Initially we thought we will have a workshop organized by them….



1. I’m a long way off to be a proper Australian!

2. If you owner build it means exactly that. You have all the responsibility. I hoped, I could “get away with it” and pay for services/trades I don’t know about, about, but that will not do! I will need to know exactly what I want and what they are doing.



Building a straw bale house in Australia- welcome to my stone age:

 The last three weeks were rather…interesting, we helped building a straw bale house (timber framed/ non load bearing), decided on Mark to be our builder, I cancelled the consultancy contract with a regional straw bale construction company, fired our structural engineer, found a new one, decided on using a steel frame and on building non load bearing, changed the orientation of the slab and I designed a new three bedroom wing.

What did you do on the extended weekend of the 14th -18th of July?

Well, we build a straw bale house! It was just magic, we were 8 people on Saturday and three for the remaining time, within this time we raised all the straw bale walls, put in the window and door frames, tied everything down and prepared the house for rendering. The house is 12x20m big, Mark is a builder by trade, Tim (my dear husband) has the experience of two workshops, I of one, the other 5 people were novices. It was an amazing experience! We worked hard, but had a lot of fun, too. I was very curious to see how I would cope physically, after all, when we will build our own home I will be the one on site, Tim has to work. So I dug my heels in and worked as hard as I will do for our house, ok, at the third day I had sore muscles, but hello, I can do it!

That’s the exiting part. The not so exiting part was, well, Mark showed us the foundations of the house…! It is built on a hill side, on a suspended slab. It is non load bearing, the roof is supported by wooden logs that sit in front of the straw bale walls (seen from inside of the house). Julie and Vince the owners, had both, an architect and a structural engineer, and of course, they received the development approval and the construction certificate from their council. Under the house stands a brick wall that is in no way connected to the slab above (there is a gap between the slab and the top of the brick wall). It’s completely useless. The upright standing logs had no support beneath the house to carry their weight. The way it was designed the straw bales would have protruded so 250mm over the edge of the slab (no joke!), all involved parties had “forgotten” that straw bales are just a little bit wider than the “normal” brick veneer clad stud walls used here in Australia!!! There were no provisions taken to accommodate water pipes within the slab or to attach the deck! Again, they had an architect, a structural engineer and two building inspectors looking at their plan!!

Reading through my previous entry of the diary I though I might have been a little bit over sensitive regarding our (former!) structural engineer, but now I don’t think so!

I know of other straw bale house owners who went through 6 structural engineers until they found one capable to understand what they were talking about!

Julie then did something very brave: She stopped the whole project and asked for explanations, and then for an outside opinion. Mark was recommended and hired. He set things right, The logs have now concrete columns supporting them, the slab was extended to carry the full width of the straw bales and the slab is now properly supported.

Our (former!) engineer was over engineering. We showed Mark the slab drawings. The deck (8,2x9m) was to be supported by 33 (!) wooden posts. Mark had one look and asked:”What do you want to build on top of it, the Empire State Building?” That was the last straw. Given our previous experiences with him it seems that Bill just can’t engineer our house.

We will have Mark as our builder!! we discussed our building project with him. He was not quite happy about the hybrid load bearing method we wanted to use. He suggested instead of having window/door frames that also connect top and bottom plate, to have “floating” windows in the walls and using two huge, overlapping laminated beams as the top plate. That would be pure load bearing walls. Our house will have a cathedral ceiling in the living area, at the highest point 6m high. I started to feel really uneasy about using the hybrid method without proper engineering support, but the idea of building load bearing only didn’t feel right, either. I asked: ” Mark, just forget about load bearing for a moment. Here is my floor plan. What would be a good and cost effective way of building this house?” He looked at me and said:”Steel frames.” Back at home I changed the plans to fit non load bearing straw bale walls within a steel frame.

I made appointments with the two remaining structural engineers in town and Mark came up to talk to them. That was wonderful! I just leaned back and listened as Mark explained where he wanted the steel posts and beams and how the slab would be done. They said:”Yes, Mark”, and that was it. No mention about putting posts in the solid ground beneath the infill part of the slab (don’t ask me why!). Mark explained that we would push the building back into the hill until it stands on solid ground. No posts needed, no problem! Great!! That was my fun day out!

The building process starts to change me. I developed quite some steely backbone, recently. Isn’t it somehow funny that now our house will have a backbone of steel as well? I refuse to break. I do speak up. I make my voice heard. I make my ideas understand. My blood pressure rises, but somehow my calm of mind does rise as well. It is good to be passionate. It is good to be creative. It’s good to be me.

Mark had a look at our property and suggested moving the position of the house to face it north west instead of due west. “North facing” is the magic word for me! Passive solar gains and light into the house! (We live in the southern hemisphere, our north is your south). So last Saturday I took some quiet time, sat on our front steps and designed a new three bedroom wing. While I was at it I also changed the shape of the roof, the connection between two of the roofs of our house caused me a little bit of a headache. All 3 bedrooms do face north now, no dormers but mezzanines to accommodate the beds, and I added a room for the house’s technical necessities (hot water tank, manifold, fuse box…).

We then decided to move the house back to its former position, the views are just too gorgeous, but we may keep the new 3 bedroom wing (hubby is still thinking about it and I need to ask Mark for his opinion regarding the ease of building).

I’m a little bit under time pressure because our building permit comes with a time restriction. Up to the 20th of January 2013 we need to have…well, opinions are differing on that one, “to have work started” up to “show something substantial has been done”. So there is my time line. It seems crazy still to change things but I’ve learned to accept changes as a fact of life. There is no such thing as a predictable future. If you can’t withstand the pressure of a stream, go with the flow and swim. You stay at the surface that way. Of course, it doesn’t mean to forget to pay your taxes or not to plan for the future, just keep an open mind. You are just at the place you are meant to be. If you work at it, it will work out (well, at least it works for me that way!).

Oh, one more thing: I was thinking about hiring a private certifier instead of the council’s, I talked to one and found out that he can’t do the job because, with reference to the Building Code of Australia, straw bale buildings are declared “alternative buildings” because it is though that they do not have any insulation properties…ouuuuch!!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.