Catherine Wanek After growing up in Las Cruces, NM, Catherine lived in various places until she settled in Los Angeles to work as an assistant director in Hollywood film production. Lured by the beauty of New Mexico, Catherine purchased the Black Range Lodge in the 1980s with a vision of making movies there, and developing the property into a lush permaculture landscape, which now includes an abundance of fruit trees. Since then she has been providing a comfortable respite for others seeking rest and relaxation in a natural, healing environment. After building a straw-bale greenhouse in 1992, she became an advocate of “natural building”, traveling internationally to research and educate, authoring books and videos, and hosting hands-on workshops at the Lodge to spread the word about ecological construction methods. Books she has authored on these subjects include The Hybrid House: Designing with Sun Wind Water and Earth, The Art of Natural Building, and The New Strawbale Home.
Q: I am investigating the feasibility of bringing a straw bale building workshop to my city, Thunder Bay Ontario Canada. I'd like to do it at some point this summer. I haven't yet read anything that would make me think that straw bale construction isn't suitable for our climate (long cold winters)...but please correct me if I'm wrong!
A:(Owen Geiger) Yes, you can build straw bale structures in Ontario. Straw bale buildings have been built in Oregon,Washington and all across Canada, including Nova Scotia, all of which receive high rainfall. As with any type of building - wood frame, strawbale, etc., the main thing you need to do in rainy climates is protect the walls from moisture damage. This can be accomplished by building wide roof overhangs, raising the bale walls a safe distance above grade and sloping the site away from the building. Another key point is do not use moisture barriers in the walls. You want to allow any moisture that may get into the walls to escape.
Here are some recommended resources:
Camel's Back Construction, Chris Magwood (former editor of The Last Straw Journal) www.strawhomes.ca
Serious Straw Bale: A Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron
More Straw Bale Building by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack
Moisture in straw bale housing in Nova Scotia: final report, November 1998 / submitted by: S.H.E. Consultants
Q: I am currently in Gainesville, Florida for a short visit. I live in California and have a lot in the Sierra foothills south of Yosemite. My plan is to build a strawbale home on the lot. Do you know of any strawbale structures in Northern Florida, and in particular, the Gainesville area?
A:(Owen Geiger) Check the International Straw Bale Registry: sbregistry.greenbuilder.com . Most strawbale homes are not listed, but it's worth a try. A far better resource is the Fall Resource issue of The Last Straw that lists architects, builders, etc. by state and country: www.thelaststraw.org . Also note, that Florida is far from the ideal climate for strawbale, and therefore has very few houses. Be sure to visit with builders in Colorado, etc. on your way to Yosemite and I guarantee you will be amazed.
Q: I live in northwest Florida and plan on building a home in the next 1-1/2 years. It will be in a wooded area on the family farm. My brother grows/sells hay. Is a straw-insulated house feasible in this humid environment where we spend most of our electricity on air-conditioning rather than heating? I'm looking to build a small home with porches, an open floor plan with a basement. If a straw-insulated home is not feasible because of the humidity, which "green" product would be?
A:(Owen Geiger) Strawbale is ideally suited to dry hot climates, cold climates and temperate climates with hot/cold seasonal swings. People have built strawbale buildings in Florida and other hot/humid climates, but I think the benefits will be somewhat less. Wide wrap-around porches, trees for shade, capturing breezes, natural ventilation, good design to guard against roof leaks, and other factors are important considerations. And just to be clear (you said your brother grows hay), straw is different than hay. Be sure to use straw made from the stems of cereal grains.
Q: How well do straw bale houses do in the hot California Deserts? Also how many years do they typically last under normal conditions and under severe conditions? Are they a low maintenance house?
A:(Owen Geiger) SB houses have lasted for 100 years in the windy, cold climate of western Nebraska. Keep in mind those old houses were poorly built. Houses built to modern standards would be much more durable, and they would last even longer in the desert due to the lack of moisture. The modern strawbale movement is centered in New Mexico, Arizona, SW Colorado, and southern California -- the desert southwest -- with thousands of houses now completed. They can last as long as any other house if they're maintained.
Q: I'm doing some research on this method and was wondering if there is a concise list or site to view current codes by state. I noticed that straw bale structures are not in just one area of the country, which brought up the issue of resistance to wind, rain, snow and ice - in other words, how these structures resist the elements.
A:(Owen Geiger) . Strawbale buildings have withstood the test of time. Some are over 100 years old (western Nebraska has the oldest buildings). They're in every state, except maybe Hawaii, and dozens of countries. My website has extensive information on strawbale building, including links to the best sites, links to picture galleries, a searchable database of articles, a strawbale bibliography, strawbale training and certification, etc.
Q: I just started to research hay-bail homes and I wanted to know what you thought of them in the hot Florida weather? Will the humidity cause us a problem? Also if you could recommend and info source that you like about hay bail homes.
A: (Kelly) I would think that a well-designed and constructed strawbale home in Florida would do fine. Make sure that it has a good foundation, well off the ground, and good eaves over the walls, to keep most of the moisture off of them. Then make sure that walls are breathable, so that if any moisture that does get in, it can get back out. Straw is very good insulation so it should help keep the home cool, especially if there is some thermal mass inside to help stabilize temperatures.
As for information, there are several books, periodicals, and links listed on this page that are quite informative. I have the Steen's original book on strawbale, and it is excellent, but I know that many of the others are also good.
Q: I'm interested in using local materials (rock from local quarries and/or straw bales) to build a home myself. I live in west-central Minnesota. Is it possible/feasible to build such a home in this climate/geographic area?
A: (Jeff Ruppert) Absolutely! Rock and straw bales go together very well. I would recommend a vernacular style house, meaning a one or two story house with large overhangs, walls made of bales with a two to 3 foot rock wainscot. The foundation can incorporate the rock if you want. Rock from the quarries can also be used in any interior thermal mass, such as fireplace mantels, or as the fireplaces themselves. Interior walls or floors are a couple other places for their use. Sounds like a fun project!
Q: Our home is built next to a hill that's covered in rubble leftover from blasting done to get the house built (not the site we would have chosen, had we built it here!). The hill continues to creep toward the house, not to mention it's pretty ugly. We call it our moonscape. Anyway, we're considering inexpensive ideas for a retaining wall and thought strawbales may be good. My husband is concerned about how much load such a wall could hold back, as well as concerned about the moisture that may seep under a wall, since the hill is very steep. Do you have any ideas on this, and/or can you recommend other sources?
A: (Kelly) I would advise you not to use strawbales to create a retaining wall...you would be asking for trouble down the road, since it would be nearly impossible to keep moisture from migrating into the wall and the straw eventually decomposing. I would suggest using earthbags with the soil at your site; this would be very inexpensive and rot-free. You might look at this page for some ideas.
Q: I am very keen on the potential of straw-bale construction for my home, however I live in the eastern interior of British Columbia and I am curious about the limitations of straw-bale housing. We receives a seasonal mean of 80^ in the summer and about 10^ in the winter. About 6 inches of rain falls in the summer and while the snowfall and accumulation lessen every year in the valley, I will still see three to four feet.
I have a bit of a japanese-style fetish when it comes to my dream home - a courtyard within the home and the living quarters to the outside perimeter. Please tell me, kind sir, does my dream home include an economically and environmentally efficient straw-bale premise?
A:(Owen Geiger) Straw-bale construction is an excellent choice for cold climates. Its ability to provide affordable super insulation is unsurpassed. Strawbale houses have been built in Oregon,
Washington, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and other rainy climates, and if properly detailed, will last for many years without moisture problems. An inner courtyard is possible. I recommend adding a covered walkway around the courtyard to help protect the bale walls.
C: A veranda-like covered walk will be utilized to accent the surround of the inner building. Great suggestion!! What really excites me is the R-60 insulation value - once the home is 66 degrees, it stays 66 degrees!!
Two string bales are about R-30 and three string bales are about R-40. You're probably better off with the higher insulating three string bales. They should keep your house very comfortable. And be sure to add adequate ceiling insulation, and seal any leaks around doors, windows, outlets, etc.
Q: I am considering buying land in central or western North Carolina. Is it feasible to build a straw bale house in such a wet hurricane prone climate? Who would be able to help me build this house? Are there general contractors that do this and where would I go to find building codes for this construction?
A:(Owen Geiger) Strawbale in wet climates: Strawbale houses have been built in Oregon, Washington, Nova Scotia, etc. (every state except possibly Hawaii). However, you will need to spend extra time and effort on the design and detailing the doors and windows to prevent moisture problems. Keep in mind that any type of structure is vulnerable to moisture damage, but I would add extra wide roof overhangs if going with strawbale, just to be safe. In extremely rainy climates, I would add wrap-around porches for peace of mind and for the benefits of outdoor living space.
Hurricanes: Almost any structure, including strawbale buildings, can be designed for hurricane resistance. Consult a local engineer who specializes in this. Note: the wide roof overhangs and wrap-around porches mentioned above are more prone to hurricane damage. So look at the overall design and weigh all the factors.
Your best source is the Fall Resource issue of The Last Straw: www.strawhomes.com A subscription will quickly pay for itself, but if money is tight at least get this one issue that lists resources by state and country. This will make it easy to find builders, architects, etc. in your area.
Q: I own some land on the coast in Jalisco Mex. I was thinking about building a strawbale home. My friends there laugh at me because of the amount of termites and other insects in the area. I have access to rice straw, clay and sand. What do you believe would be my best options for materials to keep my home cool. I live in a micro-climate where we do not get much rain and if we do it will be from a hurricane.
A:(Owen Geiger) Strawbale is certainly one option. Straw bale homes have been built in climates far worse than what you've described. (Ignore the critics -- it's common to get skeptical comments any time you do something new or different.) From what the literature says, termites are not attracted to straw bales. There's no nutrition. Still, you need to be very careful they don't try to nest in the walls. Another issue is bale quality. Can you get high quality, compact bales?
Do you have volcanic rock such as pumice, scoria or lava rock? This is what Kelly Hart used in his earthbag house and it performs as well as a strawbale home. Get the light, porous kind with lots of air pockets. You'll be guaranteed of rot proof, insect proof house that's also cool and easy to build. His website and videos provide everything you need to know. Rice hulls are another option, although more testing needs to be done in my opinion.
Q: I am interested in building a straw bale house in France. I understand that they have survived well in cold climates but are these climates in america anything like the climate in France. Do you think a straw bale house will survive in France? and if so how long and will it need any special attention?
A:(Owen Geiger) There is certainly no problem with strawbale in France. It's becoming so popular in Europe (and areas all around the world) that associations and networks are forming.
Q: Here in France Autumn is just around the corner and it is going to get colder; is that a problem or can a straw house be built at any time of year? I am also a beginner when it comes to building, in fact this will be my first build ever. Do you think you could recommend a book with a lot of useful information for beginners, written in a basic language? and another book to follow the first one, to make a collection that will help me build a really great building? I need a lot of diagrams and detailed step by step processes as I am dyslexic and would find it much easier to follow. I can read and write OK but complicated language, and technical terms will only confuse me if I cannot understand what is meant.
A:(Owen Geiger) The best book for beginners is Build it With Bales, by Matts Myhrman. It's loaded with simplified drawings and how-to information. However, some of the material is outdated. Examples: Using bales to insulate under the floor is NOT recommended, and pounding rebar through the bales is no longer done.
.More Straw Bale Building by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack jumps out as a good choice.
The best advice for beginners is to build small and keep the design simple. Also, be sure to subscribe to The Last Straw (www.strawhomes.com). You'll save a ton of headaches because this journal has all the most up-to-date info.
Building in the winter: I'd build a post and beam structure first and then infill with bales later. This totally avoids the risk of moisture damage to the bales.
Q: How do you build in tropical places, sustainable straw bale?
A:(Owen Geiger) There are many options. Strawbale will work in tropical climates, but it's not as effective/practical as in hot and dry, or cold climates. In very humid climates, I'd go with a building material that can't rot because sooner or later you'll likely have moisture problems. And as always, follow good building practices and detailing - good sized roof overhangs, etc. What building materials are locally available? That's where I'd start.
Q: I live in Northern Thailand. My wife and I really want to build a house from more traditional materials and I'm very attracted to the idea of strawbale construction, but here in Thailand baled straw is just not available. There is an abundance of straw at the end of the rice harvest each year, but it is never baled. Now keeping in mind that labor here is VERY cheap, is it possible to make bales of a good enough quality manually? We could easily hire workers to do that unenviable job for us.
A:(Owen Geiger) I don't think strawbale building is very well suited for this climate. The main advantage of using bales is the insulation value. This implies blocking out excess heat (deserts) or excess cold (very cold climates). Also, there's the ongoing risk of moisture damage in rainy climates such as Thailand. So, strawbale works best where there are temperature extremes. Thailand's weather, as you know, is quite mild.
Just a few ideas: raised houses (to catch the breezes) with shaded living space below, lots of windows for cross ventilation, covered porches on the south side, and wide roof overhangs (even wider overhangs are recommended). There's still a lot of room for improvement, however. Most wood walls are uninsulated and get miserably hot. Concrete walls in direct sunlight heat up like crazy and radiate heat for hours. White roofs would reflect more heat than dark roofs. Attics should be insulated with something that will not rot. (Rice hulls would work.)
Another option: Search Google for Loei Resort and look at the pictures of their rental units. They used adobes to create a vault and then shaded it with thatch. The adobes stay nice and cool in the shade. I think this is an excellent method. With the cheap labor available there and the use of natural materials, one of these could be built for next to nothing.
Q: I was wondering if you know of any straw bale homes in Pennsylvania, and if it is possible. It seems likely considering the climates of all the other states using strawbales.
A:(Owen Geiger) Buy the Fall Resource issue of The Last Straw to locate designers, builders and architects in your area. Most will be happy to show you their projects. And yes, there are strawbale projects in Pennsylvania.
Q: I'm looking for a greener way to build our new head house/office/potting shed for a nursery business. I am considering strawbale; probably non-load bearing due to the alternative nature and lack of experience of the inspectors in the area. There would be a long overhang as part of the design but the greenhouse must be physically attached due to shipping requirements (necessary business requirement). The attachment would be an 8' wide vestibule with somewhat open swing doors, but could be made fairly tight. However, they'd be swinging all day allowing very moist air into the structure. Is this untenable for strawbale? Should I consider something like papercrete or is there a suitable solution to protect the interior walls from moisture?
A:(Owen Geiger) Straw-bale building is very durable, although every building system has its limits. Using bales in an extreme moist environment is not the best choice when alternatives are available. My preference for wet environments is earthbag building. The polypropylene bags are unaffected by moisture and should last 100 years or longer if kept out of sunlight.
Lime plaster is the preferred choice in moist environments. Papercrete will mold.
Q: Is strawbale or straw/clay construction practical for the San Antonio, Texas environment? We are wanting to build a home using sustainable architecture and like the look of straw bale and straw/clay structures, but are uncertain about how well it would work with the humidity level here in San Antonio.
A:(Owen Geiger) Yes, straw-bale construction and straw/clay are both fine for Texas. In fact, Texas is a 'hot bed' of strawbale building (as well as other types of natural building). It's always important to become informed and use good building design, even more so in rainy and humid environments. Get a subscription to The Last Straw Journal. You'll end up with a better house and recoup your subscription cost many times over.
Q: I'm a B. Arch final year student conducting my thesis on sustainable housing in Pakistan. I'm thinking of using straw-bale as material for construction of housing units as they are locally available, reusable, natural and inexpensive. Plus it can deal well in Pakistan's climatic conditions. All I need to know is that how many stories could be erected using strawbale as construction material and how much load can this material withstand. Another thing I want to ask is how can we protect it from getting damp and what kind of plaster should be used? lime or cement? I don't have any idea as to how the foundations of such house would be made.
I know some people working with strawbale housing in Pakistan and it is working quite well: www.paksbab.org. They should be able to answer detailed questions. Strawbale testing results are here: www.ecobuildnetwork.org. Extensive testing has paved the way for strawbale construction to be approved by the building codes. If properly designed, SB houses are approved even in earthquake zones in California where the codes are very strict (which means you can build safe houses for anywhere in the world if designed correctly).
You could build two stories in earthquake zones, but it requires a lot of extra reinforcement and careful design. This greatly adds to the cost. I would go with one story designs and keep it simple.
Reinforced concrete foundations will work. Earthbags filled with gravel also work if connected with 4-point barbed wire. I wrote a post about earthbag foundations on our earthbag blog: http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/
Use wide roof overhangs of about one meter and raise the bales about 12" above grade and you'll avoid moisture problems. Put windows and doors flush to the outside walls (put window ledges/wells on the inside).
I would use earth plaster on the inside and earth or lime plaster on the outside.
Back issues of The Last Straw can be ordered on every topic you've asked about: www.thelaststraw.org
Q: Is it possible to build a straw / adobe home in Nebraska? Or would our weather prevent this?
Strawbale houses originated in western Nebraska, in the Sandhills region a little over 100 years ago. Some houses are still standing and being lived in. Straw bale houses made sense then and they still make sense today, especially in cold climates like Nebraska. (I lived in Lincoln about 20 years and work for The Last Straw Journal, which is in Lincoln.)
Use bales for the exterior walls and use adobes inside for thermal mass (they store heat and release it slowly, helping maintain a comfortable temperature). Use adobes around the wood stove and south facing windows in benches, planters, etc.
Insulate the floor, foundation and roof, and add quality windows and doors and you'll have a super insulated house that uses a fraction of the energy of most houses. And it doesn't have to cost a fortune if you use earthen floors and plaster, and build small.
Be sure and subscribe to The Last Straw for all the latest techniques and building ideas: You'll save the subscription cost many times over. www.strawhomes.com
Q: My husband and I live in the Pacific Northwest and will be building our home in a location that gets about 40 inches of rain/year. We like strawbale a lot, but should we consider it, given the rainy climate? We are planning on building an earthsheltered house (bermed north, west, and east walls with earthen roof). We would like to combine this with straw bale or cordwood construction. However, my understanding is that straw bale and cordwood need to breathe. The sections that would be earthsheltered must be sealed off to prevent moisture or leakage.
A:(Owen Geiger) I would use all earthbags, or maybe add some bales or cordwood on non-bermed walls. Earthbags are ideal for what you're doing. Our websites cover every aspect of earthbag building: www.EarthbagBuilding.com Maybe your non-bermed walls are primarily window walls that will get some driving rain, in which case bales and cordwood wouldn't be the best choice. You could build 2x6 frames for these wall with possibly stone or recycled brick facing on lower areas.
Q: I have moved to Puglia, which has high moisture in Winter. Would the climate be suitable for a straw baled house?
A:(Owen Geiger) Strawbale is okay in Puglia. Just make sure you raise the bales high enough off the ground and use wide roof overhangs.
Q: I wonder if its possible (or a good idea) to build a zero energy strawbale house in the south of Sweden (fairly warm summers and long wet/cold winters) The size of the house will need to be about 2400 sq ft.
A:(Owen Geiger) Strawbale seems to be the preferred natural building technique in Europe -- that and hempcrete, timberframe and wood/chip clay. All should work fine. The Last Straw Journal has links to all the international groups, including European natural builders. They sell back issues. Buy their annual Resource issue.
Q: We are planning on moving to northern Missouri and building a timber frame strawbale home. There are a number of people who have built strawbale homes in the area who are reporting that black mold is a issue due to the humid climate. We understand that ventilation and protection from the rain are extremely important. Our question is regarding whether strawbale is appropriate for such a humid climate (though it is quite cold in winter), and if so, what are the specific ventilation techniques recommended.
A:(Owen Geiger) It isn't worth the risk in my opinion. Ten years ago when there were far fewer homes to examine, it seemed okay. More feedback is coming in and lots of strawbale houses are molding in climates like yours. I heard that every strawbale house in at least one area of Pennsylvania was moldy. I would use materials that don't mold and then you never have to worry. This includes not using sheetrock, carpet, particle board, central heating ductwork, etc. Do the research and simply don't use products that will mold.
Q: I'm from Eastern Kentucky. I have been interested in straw bale homes, and would like to know your opinion about building such a home in my region, or should I try another resource. We don't have much income here in Appalachia and coal is not the answer.
A: (Kelly) There have been many successful strawbale homes built in your region, so this should be a viable option for you. As in any area, it is important for the home to be well designed and built, allowing plenty of foundation above the ground, a good roof with large eaves, and a substantial (and breathable) plaster over the bales.
Q: Is straw bale construction advised in Costa Rica?
A:(Owen Geiger) I don't recommend building with bales in tropical climates. I've been living in Thailand that has a similar climate and I certainly wouldn't do it. Sooner or later, probably sooner, you'd have moisture problems. Watch for an upcoming report about rice hull houses if you're interested in building with lightweight materials. We have a firsthand report from someone building this way in Thailand for several years with good success.
Q: I am new to straw bale home building and we are looking into building a home in the next few years. I am wondering if this type of home could work in a climate such as upstate New York? Can these homes be built with a basement foundation? Can you use geothermal heating and cooling systems with them? Water reclamation systems?
A:(Owen Geiger) Yes to everything. It's an excellent option that's easy to get code approval. You will have off the charts insulation value if you insulate the foundation and roof in proportion to the walls and use good quality doors and windows. Radiant heat flooring is much more affordable than geothermal.
Q: If it were possible to ship straw bales to the arctic, how practical would it be to construct straw bale, post & beam housing for our indigenous northern peoples in Canada. The 2x4 frame, fibre glass insulation construction that's typical seems to be inadequate. A design of solar radiant floors with straw bale construction might be the answer to a lot of ever present housing issues in the north.
A: (Kelly)Strawbale homes in that region would certainly be more comfortable than what is commonly done, and solar radiant floor heating compliments this nicely. I am wondering if there might be a local alternative to strawbales, however. Is there any lightweight volcanic stone in the region? Such material can be crushed and placed in earthbags to build thick insulating walls very cheaply and naturally. The problem with strawbales is getting them there.
Q: My husband and I have a 5 year plan for paying off our debts and building a home. We really adore strawbale/cob and we want to build our dream home out of one or both of those methods (e.g., some parts done with just cob, maybe?). We are looking at three possible states to move to, and we were curious if you had an opinion on which state would be best suited to strawbale building? We are looking into southern Florida, Colorado near the mountains, or Vermont. We just know that my health makes me unable to handle where we currently live, with the intense heat and humidity. Also, would strawbale lend itself well to a courtyard house type of design?
A:(Owen Geiger) Your idea of a strawbale/cob home is very good, especially if the cob is in select places inside and you use an earthen plaster for the strawbales on the inside. This combination does well in a variety of climates and creates a very comfortable, thermally efficient home. If heat and humidity are issues for you, I would think that Colorado might be your best choice. I lived in that state for more than a decade and found it beautiful and well adapted for strawbale buildings. Strawbale houses can easily have a courtyard design.
Q: We live in Northern PA where summers are hot/humid, and winters are cold/dry. I was thinking about a stone with quickcrete foundation, lime render/plaster walls and an earthen floor. However, what really has me caught up is the insulation. What do you suggest? I was thinking straw, but I am worried it will be too humid and the porous nature of lime won't be enough to keep it dry.
A: (Kelly) Actually, if you build the walls with straw bales and plaster them with lime the breathability of the lime will allow the straw to air out sufficiently that it should remain dry enough. The main thing is to keep rain off the walls with a good roof eave and a high foundation.