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Building a Straw-bale, Timber-frame House

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From April 2003 through June 2004, I wrote a series of articles on our building projects around the homestead. The articles chronicled our building practices from our first rudimentary lean-to to the completion of our 24-by-48-foot, two-story English-style barn in 1996. Since 2004 I've written on many other homestead subjects, including livestock, gardening, and the philosophy of country living, but many readers have asked when I would write more about the building projects. The following article is in response to those requests. For those who did not have the benefit of reading my earlier articles, I’ll start with a brief history.

Laurie and I acquired our 68 acres of wooded hillside in the foothills of the Adirondacks in 1990. We had very definite ideas about what we wanted to do. We wanted to make a life on the land with the resources that were immediately available to us. Our first thoughts were about building, and we had chosen land with timber suitable for that purpose as well as an orientation that would facilitate the harvesting of sunlight for energy. We set about acquiring tools, including a handheld sawmill, picks, shovels, and myriad other hand-operated appliances. From writers like Helen and Scott Nearing (Living the Good Life) and Jack A. Sobon (Build a Classic Timber-Framed House) we learned about traditional building methods that were suitable to human-scale projects. As we acquired knowledge we put it into practice. We started small, with projects such as a loom and a kayak, then moved on to remodeling an existing building. Our two-story barn, with its stone foundation and timber frame cut from our own trees, was our crowning achievement. By then it was 1997, and we had, after much effort and consideration, finally decided on the exact site where we would build our house.

Throughout our house-plannng and barn-building years, we lived in a small camp about 15 miles from our homestead site. With 400 square feet of living space it was certainly “cozy,” but we looked forward to having the amenities of a real homestead: a root cellar, a spacious kitchen where one could process bushels of tomatoes, a crafts room where one could spread out her latest work in progress, etc. So we were excited to reach the point where we could begin to make that house a reality. The site was a south-facing slope overlooking the barn, protected on the west by wooded hillside and with a bowl-like shape that seemed to provide the perfect combination of solar exposure and weather protection.

We had decided on a house design—a timber-frame structure like the barn, with straw bales for insulation (at that time the straw bale building revival was in its infancy, the idea was radical, and few people in the northeastern United States had attempted it). The house would be built into the hillside, its interior levels following the hill’s slope. Its wedge shape would shelter it on the north while the high south face would provide for ample solar collection.
Building Permit Butterflies

The first step in any modern building project of this size is getting a building permit from the local building inspector. For me, dealing with building inspectors always churns up anxiety. They have great power, and that power can be especially intimidating to people whose plans veer far from the mainstream of dimension lumber and high-tech accessories. In spite of my fears, our first experience with the local inspector had gone pretty well. He had readily cooperated with our ideas about stone foundations and building the barn with lumber harvested from our own land. Unfortunately, building inspectors don't last forever. That inspector was gone and a new fellow had taken his place. We steeled ourselves and made our first visit to the office of code enforcement.
We sat ourselves down in the cramped and cluttered office. Bert, the new building inspector, was an affable fellow, a farmer and lifelong volunteer fireman for whom the income from the part-time code enforcement job was a much needed supplement. He drove a battered burgundy pickup with farm plates and talked pure homespun. "So how can I help you?" he asked.

I cleared my throat. "Have you ever heard of building with straw bales?"

"No, I haven't."

There followed a long pause as he stared at us fixedly. Then he slapped the cover of a large book that adorned a corner of his paper-laden desk. "If it's in here, it's okay."

The book was the official New York State Building Code desk reference.

"It's not gonna be in there," I mumbled.

Thus began our building permit adventure. Starting with that first day when we described a general overview of the things we wanted to do, we settled into a routine. Every two weeks we would pay Bert a visit. He would express his latest concerns, and over the following two weeks, we would strive to answer those concerns. His first issue was with fire. Aren’t straw bale walls a fire hazard? We brought him a video showing a fire test that had been done on straw bale walls in California. That video showed a plastered straw bale wall’s great superiority to other standard fire-rated building materials. He must have liked that video. We never got it back.

Another sticking point arose when he insisted that we would need an architect’s drawings of our project. In New York at that time, a residential building comprising less than 1500 square feet of living space did not require a professional designer. Our house, coming in at 1480 square feet, just squeaked under this limit. Nevertheless Bert felt within his rights to demand an architect. It was, he said, for his protection in the highly litigious atmosphere of twentieth-century America. We found an architect in Troy, Bo Michael, who generously spent a morning with us reviewing our plans and talking about straw bale building. Bo had been involved in some other straw bale projects and was familiar with state-level policy on the idea. "You go back and tell your building inspector that I said you don't need an architect. Your plans are far more detailed and complete than any that you would get from a professional designer."

It was true that our plans were extensive. We had full drawings in plan and elevation of every level of the house from foundation to roof, and there were detail drawings of every structurally significant section. Each timber was drawn out and dimensioned, and we had included our sizing calculations for all load-bearing members. Infused with confidence we went back to Bert and, for the first time, showed him our drawings. He dropped his insistence that we needed an architect.

Bert’s Bold Move

One day, after three months of effort, Bert announced that he was feeling "adventurous." Seemingly on the spur of the moment, he issued our building permit. He recruited the town clerk and dragged Laurie outside the town hall for a photo of the historic event. Our efforts had not been in vain. We walked away with a permit not only for our building, but also for a gray water treatment/utilization system and a composting toilet. When Bert signed the permit he said, "I've written everything on here. That way someone can’t come along later and try to take it away from you." We had gained an ally in our building adventure. (We didn't know then how lucky we were. It was years later, during our first visit with yet another building inspector that we discovered how dangerous the waters could be. His first words to us were, "I have no record of your building project." But that's another story for another time.)

Bert made several other concessions. For example, he decided that our 18-inch-thick stone foundation walls would not need footings. (A footing is a wide masonry platform at the bottom of a narrower masonry wall. Typically twice as wide as the wall it supports, the footing distributes the load of the structure over a wide area.) The footing requirement greatly enlarges the size of the foundation excavation and complicates the belowground formwork that is necessary. Eliminating the footings meant we could streamline our operation significantly. Bert also waived the need for excavation inspection, even though the building code requires a completed excavation before any masonry work is done. Our method called for the excavation and the stone work to proceed in tandem, which would've meant repeated inspections over a long period of time. Bert wisely decided that he would "check in from time to time."

Tripping into Action

With building permit in hand, we were ready to tackle some real construction work. The building site we had chosen was a tangled mass of weeds, wild grapevines, and misshapen trees. It had been ravaged by industrial machinery during the previous owner’s misguided attempt to turn the hillside into a housing development. As his dreams of a housing development evaporated, he attempted to recoup some of his losses by logging the land, which resulted in further damage from the skidders and trucks. The plot fit perfectly the adage we had learned: "Build on your worst land." Over the next few weeks, as we stumbled across the rutted, lumpy landscape, as vine-festooned trees fell the wrong way or refused to fall at all, as those same vines grabbed our ankles and sent us sprawling, that line became our catchphrase, our mantra, and a standing joke. It could break the tension of the darkest moment and remind us that we had already come a long way, and that there was still a ways to go.

Once the site was cleared we were ready to stake out the footprint of the building. We started by establishing an exact north-south line on the plot. When that line was established, we marked out an orientation line for the building rotated 15 degrees to the east of south. We did this because our western exposure is shaded by the mountain and this eastern bias would take advantage of our better morning/early afternoon solar exposure. This would be the final orientation for all solar collection apparatus as well as for the house itself, and the lines of the house would be squared from this line.

The next step was to set up batter boards. Batter boards are horizontal boards erected just outside the planned perimeter of a building, typically 3 or 4 feet away from the outside face of the future building’s walls. Pairs of batter boards, fastened to upright posts, are erected perpendicular to each other and at a precise height at each corner of the building. Strings are strung from board to board, and the intersections of the strings define the precise position of the corners of the building. In addition, several marks can be established on the batter boards indicating, for example, the outside and inside faces of a footing, the outside and inside faces of a wall, etc.

Building on the hillside presented a special challenge. In a typical construction project, all the batter boards are erected at the same elevation. (Building sites either start out flat or the big machines whip them into the appropriate shape before any building begins.) But building on a slope meant that we could not set the batter boards all at the same level. The fact that the foundation would change levels as it progressed up the hillside was a further complication. Beginning at the south face of the building, the top of the foundation would be just 2 feet above finished grade. From there, the foundation would rise in steps an additional 13 feet to its high point on the north side of the building. The batter boards at the northeast and northwest corners of the building would need to be high enough to accommodate this feature while those at the south side would need to be low enough to be usable. We had to use trigonometric calculations to find the horizontal projection of the north-south sloping lines in order to establish the exact position on the batter boards for each string.

The unexcavated topography of the plot led to other bizarre effects. The northeast batter boards were 6 inches off the ground while those in the northwest corner could be reached only by climbing a stepladder. While the batter boards for a poured-concrete foundation generally are left in place for a week or two at most, we were sure ours would have to be sturdy enough to last a year, maybe even two. We chose oak and white ash posts 4 inches in diameter sunk 4 feet into the ground in the hopes that frost would not cause them to move over the winter and that they would not rot before we finished the foundation.

Once the batter boards were up, we strung the lines and carefully squared the outline of the building. We made permanent reference marks on each batter board for the various components of the foundation work. Finally we were ready to dig. With shovels in hand, we stood back-to-back at the center of the south-facing building line, Laurie facing west, me facing east. "I'll see you on the north side," I said jauntily, and we started digging. Within a few hours Laurie was up to her ankles in mud. She was extracting huge boulders, and the trunk of an enormous beech tree loomed in her path. On my side, I dug easily through the heart of a hillock of blonde and rust-colored sand. The soil was dry, and the roots of the vegetation yielded easily to my pick and shovel. My life, at least, was going in a good direction.

In my next article I will chronicle our further adventures on the foundation of the building, an experience that soon came to be likened to Mao Zedong’s Long March. I will also discuss how loving couples can learn to compensate for the asymmetries in their experience of the world.

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