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STRAW BALE HOUSE

Stramentum Sarcina Domo Or having fun building a Straw Bale House


STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. In the summer of 2002, Tess and I decided our garden, in West Yorkshire, England needed a makeover. The main feature of the new garden was to be a summer house. The lawns, being high maintenance, would be replaced by gravelled areas and we would have borders of plants and flowers around the periphery of the garden. The gravelled areas and flower borders would be the easy part, the design and construction of the summer house would be a little harder. How much harder we were to find out ! Read on….

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Whilst Tess and brother Mick were removing plants from the borders, I was side lined with a broken wrist. That didn't prevent me from planning the garden layout and designing the straw house. Why straw ? Well I’d seen a TV program named ‘Grand Designs’ here in the UK, and a in it a forestry worker had built himself a rustic house in the woods, of wood, naturally, but also of straw bales ! The rough and ready finish of the walls and windows of his house really attracted me and I wanted something similar, away from the ordinary planked garden sheds that you would find in the stores. After much research on the web I decided straw building was the way to go. I had absolutely no experience of building with straw, but with brother Mick being a builder and with information from the web I was up for the challenge , he was less certain and certainly more cautious as we will see..

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. As a result of his caution and our lack of experience, instead of rushing into building the straw house straight away, we decided to experiment with the techniques for straw building that I’d researched. So we laid the strip foundations for two walls in the garden. These would be used to build a small wall using the straw bales and associated construction methods we’d found. As you can see from the above picture, the bases are covered with membrane on top of which are planks of wood. These provide the base for the straw bales to sit on and keep moisture from striking up into the straw. Whilst this was happening I was designing the straw house and negotiating with the local planning authorities as to if they would allow straw construction and how large the house could be !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. We’d decided on the smallest straw bales available for ease of handling and found ones made of wheat straw which was perceived as being the best quality for building and longevity. The bales were approx. 48 x 24 x 18 inches in size and easily handled by one person. I had no real idea as to how many bales I would need, info on the web stated that quite a few get wasted when building and quality issues could remove many more from the equation, so when the supplier told me that an order of 80 was the minimum he would deal with I had to go along with that. Fortunately at that time bales of straw were very cheap and a whole lorry load of 80 didn't break the bank ! So when all 80 were delivered and dumped on the front drive it was action stations with all hands involved in shuttling the bales around to the rear of the house.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Here Mick is laying bales on the walls. In the background, top left, is the foundation for the summer house. We now have an assistant, visible on the lawn facing Mick, Judy our Yorkshire terrier was getting very excited with the prospect of ďŹ nding creatures in the straw. By now the lawn is getting disturbed with it being used as a work area, but that didn't worry us it was to be replaced anyhow. Note the tight string bands around the bales on the wall, many bales were very loosely bound and would have disintegrated with handling , so we rebound them as a matter of course.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. The bales now have a top wooden frame laid on them. This gives rigidity and provides a base for fastening the wires that compress the bales to hold them in place. The planks are also used to support the roof of the summer house, so not essential here but following the practice of construction we would use later.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Here you can see chicken wire laid onto the planks to provide a base for the rendering to be applied later. Note also some of the wires running down the bales and locating them to the concrete base.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Mick is now rendering the straw and finding it very difficult to get it to adhere. At this stage he’s not at all enthusiastic to use these techniques on the house itself. I went back to researching the web and found that a better approach is to fasten chicken wire to the face of the bales, which then provides a better key for the render. So chicken wire became the order of the day for the house build.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Jumping ahead in time, this was how the walls looked when finished. Unfortunately, over several winters, water penetrated the tiles and sides of the walls and loosened the render. The straw became wet and mouldy, so we demolished the walls. They served their purpose as an experimental facility, so all wasn’t wasted. The foundations still remain so there’s an opportunity to re-build the walls in stone or similar. The summer house hasn't suffered at all like this as it has a proper roof protecting the walls etc. So a lesson to be learned there.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. This is the concrete pad base for the house. We could have been ‘green’ and used old car tyres, concrete blocks or a wooden base . but I decided that a proper foundation would give peace of mind and a better support for the straw walls. Here the concrete has just been poured. Note the vertical lengths of re-bar (reinforcing bar used for concrete), these are used to pin the bales and hold them in place laterally. Also visible are the small lugs that are used to anchor the pull down wires that compress the bales. The anchor wires I believe are essential in holding down the walls. The straw walls and roof probably have insufficient weight to withstand high winds and once the walls are constructed it would be difficult to provide an alternative anchoring system as the rendered walls don't lend themselves to external fixings.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Bales are placed on the base in approximate positions. I learned pretty quickly that to get bales to ďŹ t, you had to chop them up into assorted lengths and re-bind them with string. Any straw bale house will actually be a mixture of straw and wood as the straw will not be suitable for fastening and supporting doors and windows. So where necessary we made wooden frames to surround the window and door frames. The wooden frames were bolted to the concrete base and extended high enough to also fasten to the top frame supporting the roof. So basically the straw was used as a wall but also to inďŹ ll between the wooden frames. Bales are pinned together with lengths of steel re-bar again to stop them moving against each other. I read that wooden pins have been used by other constructors to lock the bales together, but we utilised the re-bar we had plenty of from the foundation construction.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Here you see the door frame in position. The right hand window frame is in its location and reaches from the concrete base up to roof frame height. Ditto the front and left windows. We were very nervous of getting the straw wet, so if we had any rainfall and we covered the tops of the walls. As it transpired the straw dried out very quickly once the rain stopped. Thinking of farmers straw stacks and bales kept out of doors you soon realise that straw takes care of itself as long as air is circulating around it and the tops are covered. The house size you see was determined by the planning regulations we had to adhere to.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Judy keeping an eye on things through the door frame. Working with straw is a messy business as you can see. Judy loved rummaging about in it hoping to encounter some creature or other. We were concerned that mice or small rodents would establish themselves in the walls but we never spotted any, probably all of the activity deterred them.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Window frame before the roof rails are ďŹ tted. The diagonal plank keeps the frame rigid until the roof frame is ďŹ tted, which locks it in place and keeps it rigid.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Front and left side window frames before the roof rails are fitted. You may have noticed the difference in window sizes. This was done to give variety, but essentially the view from the house looking forward was more of interest than the views to the sides, especially the left hand side, so that one was made smaller. Note the shortened bale fitted into the space above the window. We found that to shorten a bale without it disintegrating you had to tie a string round the bale at the length you required, then cut the original string. With luck you were left with the shortened bale otherwise a mess of loose straw ! However loose straw could be used for the infill's such as the door pillar you see on the left. The straw bales are untrimmed at this stage.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. External view before the roof rails are ďŹ tted. Mick is preparing the wires that will compress the rails and bales. We used agricultural grade fencing wire, available in large reels and galvanised for protection from corrosion.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Showing the roof rails in place. The tension wires are threaded through plastic water tube and drop down to the concrete base clips for fastening. The clips in the concrete were positioned to match the width of the bales. Too narrow and they would have been under the bales, too wide and they would have protruded into the living space of the house.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Showing a tension wire on the outside of the walls. The inside end of the wire was tied off on the clip embedded in the concrete base. A short length of wire was then tied off on the outside matching clip. The two loose wire ends were then pulled together and tensioned using a clever device called a ‘gripple’ see www.gripple.com . The wires were eventually adjusted to give an even tension over the roof frame and bales. The bale walls became very rigid once wired in and haven't moved in over 1o years now. The rendering covered the wires and so they’re well protected from the elements and not visible.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Fitting the roof trusses to the roof rails. The extra truss at the front became the ‘extension’ to the summer house and covered the sun deck. All supported by bits of timber here and there until the trusses were firmly bracketed to the roof rails. The four corners of the roof were supported by wooden pillars concreted into the ground. The house floor area was determined by the local council in accordance with their planning regulations, but I sneaked extra living useable area with the sundeck under the roof overhang !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Fitting the roof trusses to the roof rails. The extra truss at the front became the ‘extension’ to the summer house and covered the sun deck. All supported by bits of timber here and there until the trusses were firmly bracketed to the roof rails.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Internal view of the roof trusses. Note the tension wires. Fitting electrical switches and sockets was a challenge ! We had brought mains supply to the house underground and the cable emerged in the right hand wall. The supply and house were protected by an earth leakage trip device and have never given problems. From the entry point of the mains cable I had to run supplies to 13a sockets, external lights and assorted light switches. All of the cables were run on the surface of the straw and pinned in place using wire staples. The socket/ light boxes which normally are fixed firmly into the plaster or brickwork had to be mounted in another fashion. This I achieved by making wooden spikes about 12in long which were driven into the straw walls until quite rigid and the boxes then screwed to the spike ends. The end result was untidy but in keeping with the rustic effect !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Judy supervising the roof tiling. I had become a firm believer in the use of galvanised epoxy coated steel roof tiles. The conservatory roof seen in the background had been constructed using these ‘Decra’ trade mark tiles. They are epoxy coated and come in 1.2mtre lengths by 1 tile deep. They need lighter roof construction and are fastened to the battens by screws. They form a composite rigid assembly once installed and are virtually indestructible. I could have used something more ‘natural’ but here again I decided for longevity and strength and reduction of maintenance. They’ve been in place for 10 years now and I have no signs of leaking from them. The original red colour has changed to a green/chalky colour as nature has covered them with moss.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. By now we were ready for rendering the internal and external walls. The straw had been trimmed or given a haircut, to remove the ‘spiky’ straws sticking out from the bales. They would have caused problems when applying the render. We used a hedge trimmer but a pair of garden shears would have sufficed. The straw was then covered with chicken wire held in place with ‘staples’ of wire. The rendering was easier then as the chicken wire grabbed the render better than the bare straw itself. Lots of force was needed to push the render into the straw. It was still a fiddly unsatisfying business as can be deduced from the expression on Mick’s face.. Two coats were needed as the first provided the ‘key’ and the second the finish.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. One wall with the first render coat keyed ready for the second coat. We used a standard cement/sand render which has never cracked. Others have used a lime render for flexibility, which could be better if the walls are larger and prone to movement. Note the finished roof, no guttering was ever fitted as the overhang was deemed sufficient for rain running off the roof to clear the walls and the ground beneath was flagged. The flags covered 3 sides of the house and are now very useful for Tess to store her garden containers and plants. The walls have never suffered from inclement weather and have only had 2 coats of paint in 10 years. Another benefit of having a large roof !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Roof supports ďŹ tted to the front with braces back to the house frame and uprights. This was adopted to allow the sun deck to be built up to the house base, so maximising the useable area.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Sun deck built and supported by the green posts. The posts keep the planks clear of the ground so reducing damp problems. The rope was purloined from the sailing ship Endeavour's replica when I caught up with her in Whitby harbour. The crew were selling off old rigging and artefacts to raise funds for the return leg to Australia. I’m more inclined to think the Aussie crew needed the funds for beer money ! The decking path to the house is curved as the summer house was positioned to face south east to fit into the angle of the garden and get the morning sun. The house is ready for its final coat of render.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. The sailing barque Endeavour in Whitby Harbour, just round the corner is where I snaed the length of rope for the Summer House. A local painter is taking the opportunity to create the superb picture of the Endeavour whilst she’s in the harbour.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Daughter-in-law Sarah Jane samples the sun deck.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Tess’s friends can’t wait to party ! It’s cosy in there but we’ve still to render the inside and fit the door and windows !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. The interior after rendering but before painting. The ceiling void is filled with loose straw and that in turn is kept in situ by the polythene sheet stretched across the ceiling. This in turn was planked and finally covered in cane screening sheets for that ‘jungle’ look we thought appropriate for the summer house and garden.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. From the interior looking out. The door and window frames are ďŹ tted. The walls are rendered and painted. The ceiling shows the split cane sheets covering the planking. Monkey and Polly Parrot enjoy the view !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. From the exterior looking in. The door and window frames are ďŹ tted. The walls rendered and painted. Monkey has a swing on the window frame whilst Polly Parrot enjoys the view !

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. The floor of the summer house was constructed of polythene membrane over the concrete base followed by a sheet of insulating thin foam, with a final covering of click together oak effect planking. Easy to clean and quite comfortable to walk on in all weathers. The wall rendering merged with the concrete base and so eliminated any potential draughty gaps such as you get with conventional walls and floors. The table is an authentic African piece, given to us by our sons.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. This shot shows the self made doors and windows. The door was constructed of left-over planks with a panel of split bamboo and glass leaded light. The windows I made from round garden poles, routed to accept the glass and locating beading. The glass was leaded for effect. Only one window, the front one, has an opener as I thought that the majority of the time the door would be open and there would be sufficient ventilation. Had I fitted a stove or fire then I would have increased the number of openings. I decided that a stove with its attendant flues and the hassle of lighting, cleaning was not what was required. In practice we simply plug in a simple electric heater to heat the house in colder weather. With the excellent insulation provided by the straw, making the house comfortable takes just minutes even when below zero outside. Matthew and Sarah enjoying the hammock on the sundeck.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. With the house virtually ďŹ nished we could divert our attentions to the garden. The old lawn was removed and replaced by gravel over membrane. The interface between the borders and the gravel was created using log sections linked together. The borders were populated with various plants and shrubs. We used many large pots at spots in the garden to break up the gravel areas. My Mother Doris and Judy keep an eye on things...

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Looking from the right side of the garden over the straw bale walls that were made as an experiment. They looked quite smart with white walls topped o with red tiles.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. A further view of the straw walls. The raised bed at the end was constructed of concrete blocks and holds quite a quantity of soil. The area in front of the walls was flagged using Indian stone flags. I used fine chippings to fill in the gaps between the flags.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. A further view of the straw walls from the sun deck. The gravel was a mixture of three colours, red, cream and grey, to get the combination you see here. I used the cement mixer to blend them, hard work but the only method I had. Judy on guard ! Whilst she was very interested in everything to do with the building work, once the house was ďŹ nished she was always very reluctant to spend any time inside.

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STRAW BALE HOUSE

The story of a Straw Bale Summer house. Looking down on the house from a bedroom window. This view gives an indication of the positioning of the house in relation to the rest of the garden. Here you can see the ags running down the right side of the house. The left side is the same, but has the gravel round that side allowing access to the rear of the summer house and fence where we store garden tools etc.

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From the STRAW BALE HOUSE

Goodbye

Straw Summer House  

Building a straw bale summer house in our Yorkshire garden in the year of 2003

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