Straw Bale Design and Site Evaluation

California rural propertyWhen I begin to design a straw bale house, the first thing I do is visit the site. Whether it is in a rural or urban environment, there are usually features and circumstances that can provide me the seed that eventually will grow into a well thought-out design. There are many ways to begin this design process, but I prefer to start with a simple question. What does the site have to show me? If a building site has not been chosen, it would probably be a good idea to provide the client with some helpful input. Walking the site with the client, observing and pointing out special features such as, views and the local ecology including climate, trees, and topography, can open the door to some design ideas that appropriately were born from the site itself. This promotes a more integrated building that will adhere a sense of belonging with its environment.

Depending on the climate you are designing for, you are going to want to orient the building in ways that interact with natural elements such as, the sun for heating, prevailing winds for ventilation, or near existing or new trees or land formations for protection. Views are important, but be careful for instance not to sacrifice ideal solar access just to get a nice view. This can result in a space that provides a spectacular view, yet is too cold to ever enjoy.

In moderate to cold climates or during the cooler months, the bale walls act as an incredible insulation. Coupled with high quality windows and doors, a breathable, yet air tight envelope arises that keeps the heat in and the cold out. In choosing a site for the house, it is ideal to orient it towards the noon day sun with glazing that allows the low winter sun to shine into the living spaces, such as a sunroom, living room, or kitchen. This will heat up those spaces and the bale walls will act to hold the heat in, thereby keeping the house at a comfortable temperature. Furthermore, cold direct winds can literally pull that heat out of the interior of the home. By placing the home in a spot that encourages trees, shrubs, and land formations to block the oncoming chilly air, considerable heat loss can be avoided during these colder months.

In moderate to hot climates or during warmer times of the year, the bale walls perform by keeping the hot temperature outside and leaving the inside cool. Glazing on the sun side can be relatively the same as in a cooler climate, although adequate overhangs above the windows to block the high hot sun from entering the house is key, otherwise the inside will over-heat. Moreover, deciduous trees, existing or new, can block the hot sun before it even hits the house, and can also offer a nice cool spot to have a picnic.

Keeping the inside temperature cool can additionally be achieved by strategically placing windows or vents on cooler or shadier sides of the house along with an output located on the opposite side. This promotes a cross breeze that flows through and cools the inside of the house. Additionally, a small water feature, such as a fountain placed where the air enters, can act as an air conditioner that cools warm outside air, as it flows inside. It can also provide the peaceful sounds of water trickling throughout the home.

So no matter what climate you are designing a straw bale house for, remember that it is the site that will be cradling your creation. Whether it is a small lot, or large acreage, it holds valuable information that if considered fully, can turn a good design into a beautiful, integrated, and comfortable home. If ignored, it can turn a relatively good design into an unpleasant energy intensive money pit, but oh, it has a nice view.


Chris Keefe, from an early age, discovered his creative spirit in art. In 1996, he received a B.A. in Liberal Arts focusing on drawing, Music and Philosophy from San Francisco State University. In tandem, he was actively involved in a grassroots environmental project for five years at the University of California in Berkeley. He became interested in the field of straw bale as he began his graduate studies in 1999 at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. Focusing to integrate his work in the environmental and sustainability field with his creative imagination, he received a Master of Architecture and Ecological Design in 2001. Soon thereafter, he founded a company called Organicforms Design which offers ecologically and artistically based design utilizing natural and sustainable materials. Since then, he has worked and completed several exciting design/build projects in Southern Oregon. In 2002, he began to focus primarily on straw bale research and design as the lead designer on the innovative project, The Straw Bale Village in Jacksonville, OR. Please visit his website at

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