Evaluating the Building Site for a Straw Bale House

Written by Andrew Morrison

snow drift on straw bale houseI often tell people the first step in building a straw bale house, or any house for that matter, does not actually take place during construction but rather in the design room. In truth, this is not quite accurate. For a really good design, the first step involves evaluating the building site for a straw bale house.

Every site is different and therefore requires attention to different details. For example, does your building site have drainage concerns? Where does the sun travel during the day? How much organic material and fill will need to be removed from the site prior to construction? These and other questions like these need to be addressed early on in the design process in order to yield a home design that truly incorporates the house into the site.

In the following video, I walk you through a sample site evaluation. This evaluation is obviously truncated for time, but gives you an idea of what is involved in performing a site evaluation. Take as much time as you can spare for the evaluation. You will be happy you did in the end.

People often contact me asking for stock straw bale house plans. I tell them that I can offer them several options; however, the best option is a custom design for their specific site. Although it is possible to use plans from a different site on your property, it is not ideal. Consider that the subtle differences in topography, wind, solar access, drainage, and more can have a huge impact on the efficiency of any home, even a super efficient straw bale home.

If the original design depends heavily on prevailing winds for cooling and solar gain for heating and both of those aspects are missing or limited on your building site, the home will not perform the way it was designed. For that reason, it is always best to design the home for the site you are working with. In order to best design that home, a site evaluation must be performed so that all of the assets and short comings of the site are known from the beginning.

How much time is needed for a site evaluation depends on the site itself and the amount of detail you want to collect. Some of my clients have spent a year or more living on their land in a yurt, tent, or mobile home so that they can get to know the ins and outs of the property. In the end, the site that one of my clients had originally chosen for their home was abandoned and a second site was used. Had they not spent the time they did on the property prior to building, they would have made a fairly significant mistake in the placement of the home.

Although not always as drastic as this first case, all of my clients who spend time on their land before they build have reported gratitude for doing so. Of course, spending a year or more on a piece of land before starting design and construction is very often not possible. Just keep in mind that the more detail you can gather about the land before you break ground or even start designing, the better.

Here’s a cool tip I learned several years ago.
The full moon follows the same path as the sun will 6 months and 12 hours later. In other words, if you want to see how the winter sun will enter your home, watch the full moon in a summer month. If you want to know how to keep the sun out of a building during the summer, watch a full moon in the winter and see how it travels across your land. This simple tip can save you thousands on your heating and cooling bills.

Another tip along the same lines is this: contact you local power company. Boring you may say, but it is actually very powerful. Some companies will provide a free service and give you a disposable heliodon. This device is used to simulate the path of the sun across the sky on a model of your home. The value of this is that you can place a scale model of your home on the site or even on a desk with a small, stationary spotlight and investigate how the sun will play into the house at different times of the day, month and year. This simple tool can help you make adjustments to your design before you break ground…very cool!

Be sure to perform your site evaluation early and gather as much detail as you can. The more you learn about your land before you start designing the better. You may even discover new things about your property you had not previously noticed. One thing is for sure, you will know in the end that the site you chose is the best one available and you will know how best to take advantage of all the assets your land has to offer. When all is said and done, you will have a house that becomes part of the site, rather than a house that simply sits on top of the site. There is a very big difference between the two!

For more information on this topic please click this link to enjoy the article on Site Evaluation written by my design colleague Chris Keefe.

As always please feel free to comment on this post. Scroll down to leave your feedback or comments.

Happy Baling!

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10 Responses

  1. I’m in the process of building a “spec” house on the Sioux Reservation in Rosebud, SD.,in which we will build a min. of 45 homes via load bearing walls. Your info has been “very” helpful… Keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you for the feedback Chadwick. I am happy to have helped you. It sounds like a big project you have going. Good luck and I hope it all goes smoothly!


  3. The info abt the sun/moon pathways is very useful, thanks! Any hope that there is some similar pattern that will help predict summer/winter winds?

    Some years back I inherited the family 40 – (homestead from 1874 in Michigan) – land hasn’t been farmed since the 40’s nor lived on since 1980, no buildings left standing. I’ve decided to build a small home there but the siting is daunting as 2 sides of the rectangle are on a county road, and the old driveway has been eaten by the woods. Where ever I decide to put it, I need to clear land and build a drive, so there are too many options.

    Meanwhile I live in SF so can’t spend the time I’d like to scoping it out. Any thoughts on figuring out prevailing winds by season would be appreciated.

  4. I am really happy whenever I am watching your website. Your strawbale house is doing a splendid business.

    I am doing in processing of post and beam(nonload bearing) soon, but I still have a difficult in Roofing part. I do not care because you are here.
    Your website and informations has been a big helpful.

    Please let me know how to make a strong roof.
    Thanks again.

  5. Chung Soo,
    Thank you for your kind words. The best roof assemblies that I work with are manufactured trusses because they are fast (they install both the roof and the ceiling at the same time), use smaller members of framing (2×4’s in general), can be heavily insulated for efficiency, and are very strong. If trusses are not available to you, you can frame a roof out of poles (peeled trees of relatively small diameter), or standard framing materials as long as the roof spans are calculated. This becomes more of an engineering question because roof snow loads, dead loads, live loads, and other impacts have to be accounted for in the frame sizing. I would defer to an engineer or a book with certified span tables for such work. I hope this helps..

  6. Lynetta,
    In order to measure the wind, you will need to purchase an anemometer and a recorder. I suggest you go to our home page and do a search on the web for “anemometers.” There are sevral links that show up and that will get you started, Another resource is a great book called “Wind Power for Home and Business” by Paul Gipe. Good luck.

  7. I should say that an ideal way to measure the wind is to use an anemometer that is at the elevation of the wind generator. In other words, a hand held anemometer will not give you adequate results for the wind generative powers at 30′ above the ground. You would need a pole and a meter that could reach that height for accurate readings.

  8. Hi Andrew…..I just found your website and love all of it. I noticed where you said you are looking for hosts for at least 2 more workshops. I know they are both overseas but wanted to know if you would consider a project in the State of Oklahoma. A friend and I are still in the infant stages of our business plan but wanted to be off the grid and go as green as possible with the structures we are planning to build. Don’t know if it will happen in 2008 or later but would like more information on what the requirements are to be a host and what kind of resources do you commonly look for locally that might be needed?

    Thanks….and again, thanks for the great website. cd

  9. Christi,
    All of the details of what are required for hosting are on the website (www.StrawBaleWorkshops.com) under “host a workshop.” In general, all we need is the ability to set up a bunch of tents and have a meeting space big enough to accommodate 20-25 people for Q&A sessions and meals. The host provides the food with a stipend from me (per participant) and also pays for the materials. They are also responsible for the construction of the building prior to the workshop. Everything must be in place in time for us to arrive and do the workshop. I would be interested in talking to you about your site; however, I believe I am filled up for 2008. I may add more dates later on, but for now think I have all the sites I need. If all the workshops fill up way ahead of time and demand seems high, I would consider adding more dates. You may want to check out one of my workshops this year and get “warmed up.” That way you can be sure you want to be a host in the future. Be well.

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