Sunday, 25 January 2009

Straw bale house building

This is from the archives, an email that I sent back in 2004. The names and locations have been changed to protect the guilty.

I’m sure you always wanted to know how the three little pigs had their unapproved dwelling demolished by the local council building inspector, Mr Wolf. So I’ll tell you, since I now know how to construct buildings using straw bales and mud.

It all started last week when I got a very excited call from Lippy. Lippy & BundyMan have wanted to build a guest house on their property at DestinationX for a while, and they’ve been debating what to construct it with. It appears that Lippy has been pretty keen on using straw bales, and after a bit of web surfing, found that a course was being run at Ganmain (about half an hour west of Wagga) by a mob called Hippies Inc.

Since I am the closest free labour to DestinationX, I was immediately roped into the course. How silly am I? I have spent $495 of my own money to learn how to build a house for someone else – for free. I must be losing my marbles.

Lippy also grabbed Bumcrack (daughter) and Rob (boyfriend of the aforementioned Bumcrack) to attend since they will also be providing free labour. Except that they are teenagers, and they can’t even work up the energy to clean their rooms. I know that their idea of working on the guest house will be flopping on the couch watching TV and moaning, “Aw Mum!” every time Lippy yells at them to bring us a cold drink, first aid kit, ambulance etc. I have seen more active sloths than those two. Somehow, I have the idea that I will be doing the work of three people.

So I sign up for the course, and am immediately booked into the Ganmain hotel. If the Ganmain hotel has ever received an accommodation star from any travel organization like the NRMA or RAC, whoever gave it to them should be sacked on the spot. Well ok, it was only $15 per night, so you get the idea of how classy this establishment turned out to be.

All was going well until sometime on Thursday when Lippy rang to say that she wouldn’t be going after all, since she had to hop on a plane to visit a few CIA people in Washington to talk about national security etc. All very hush hush. I reckon she just wanted to get away to do a bit of shopping in Hong Kong, and is using this new gig as a way to get out of lots of things. Like getting covered in mud.

After getting to DestinationX on a long weekend in one piece on Friday night, BundyMan and I hit the road at 6am on Sat and headed south. The kids had driven down on Friday and already sampled the delights of Ganmain, which are very few and far between. Getting into a fight at the pub with one of the various ex-cons seems to be the highlight.

I take it you have never heard of Ganmain? Niether had I, and neither had my country town road map, which to date has included every little two bit train stop that I have had to visit from one end of the state to the other. Except Ganmain. I found it on the map by putting my finger on Wagga and then tracing along the railway line going west. There it was, somewhere on the way to Narandera.

The course was supposed to kick off at 9am, which is about when we pulled into town. Finding our way around was not too hard, since the town consists of a wheat bin, two pubs and a few hundred people. We went straight to the building site, only to be told that everyone was over at the Red Cross hall. The Red Cross hall was probably slapped up around 1940 as a rest stop for troops going somewhere on the train, and it looked like it last saw maintenance around that time.

An interesting crowd of learner builders had assembled – BundyMan and I had both assumed on the drive down that we would be two rednecks mixed in with a bunch of Democrat voting, whale hugging, tree kissing, bearded weirdo’s. Instead, it looked more like we had just under 20 fairly normal looking people. Plus a few kids under the age of three that were running amok in all directions. We also met Mr & Mrs Hippy, the couple that were running the course.

The first hiccup came when I went to pay. I haven’t owned a cheque book since 1999 and they didn’t accept Visa. And there was no ATM in town, except for one of those dinky little cash dispensers in the pub. As I was to find out, it would only dispense $200 per day. I was starting to think about driving to Wagga to visit a proper ATM, when I was told that I could pay at the end. Assuming that the pub had not run out of cash by then.

We said our hellos and abandoned the Red Cross hall for the building site. Mr & Mrs Hippy had bought a block of about 2 acres in town and were in the process of slapping up a series of buildings. Their house was at one end of the block and we were building at the other end. I use the word “house” loosely, since their idea of a house was to build a series of structures that served one function each (pavilions as they put it) instead of a “monolithic” structure. One of the pavilions was the “marriage room” which was inhabited by the “principal partners”. We were to hear lots of new age terms like that over the next few days. There was a lot of eye rolling amongst the participants when each new term came out.

This photo shows the site and the “Hall of Conciliation”. To the right of it, and through the smaller trees, is the men’s dunny. Next to it is a bloke standing in a trench – that is the foundations for what we were building, the female dunny.

The Hall of Conciliation was a hoot. Our Greenie friends decided soon after they moved to Ganmain that they would put up their own gesture of reconciliation. They held a straw bale building conference and 102 like minded nuts turned up from around the world and they stuck this thing up in 3 days. After spending 3 days on the site, I have no idea how they managed to do it. I’m sure that about 98 peace freaks sat around and argued for 3 days about which way to point the building to maximize the feng shui and 4 brickies put the building up on their own.

Back to the Hall. There are no blackfellas in Ganmain. They all live down the road about half an hour in Narandera. If they wanted a cultural centre, I’m sure they wanted it close to where they live. However, no white man decided to ask them. Our hippies just decided that they would erect it in Ganmain. I’m sure that it gave them a warm and fuzzy feeling doing that, even though the blackfellas down the road wanted nothing to do with it. Paternalism at its worst.

This of course made them really popular with the locals. Not. I went to the Australia Day BBQ breakfast in the Victory Park (erected 1946, but lacking any captured German artillery) opposite our pub. About 150 locals had turned up for a snag and some fried eggs, and it was a very monocultural crowd. Our hippies slagged off at the locals at every chance they got for their small mindedness, their lack of vision etc etc etc, but after three days, I was starting to side with the locals.

I should mention that Mr Hippy worked as a salesman for Honeywell back in the 1970’s and 1980’s and made a lot of money selling mainframes. In other words he is a wealthy, Balmain dwelling, BMW driving intellectual that probably had a mid life crisis and decided to go hug trees in the middle of nowhere. Or he smoked too much dope or dropped too much acid and had a brain meltdown. His brain was so fried, he wouldn’t have been able to peddle drugs in Nimbin.

He had no idea about a hell of a lot. But he thought that he knew a lot about everything and loved to talk and talk and talk. I should mention now that towards the end of the course, he started telling us how the Gnomes of Zurich controlled the oil industry. The eco-nut conspiracist in him had been well hidden for 2 ½ days, but it started to burst out towards the end. I was waiting for him to tell us about the alien abduction and the anal probe, but maybe we had to stay for another 2 days to hear about that.

The days consisted of a few hours of stuptefyling boring lectures about the evils of cement (consumes too much energy in making it, which I can appreciate), the horrors of the patent system (profiting from knowledge is bad) and the silliness of monolithic building design. Unfortunately for me, straw bales are too uncomfortable to sleep on, so I had to struggle to stay awake through the droning rants against Boral and their evil board of directors (they are in league with the Gnomes of Zurich to sell us more bricks), the luddites that inhabit most town councils (yes, we know about that one – move on) and the beauty and purity of straw bale construction (if we didn’t know about that already, what were we doing paying 500 bucks to attend this course?)

After a few hours of boredom, we would be let loose on the building site. When we left at the end of day 3, the place was about 50% complete. That was not due to any lack of effort – it was due to a total lack of project management (telling people what to do is bad – sends negative vibes which get embedded in the building). I reckon that the 20 of us could have put the entire place up in a day – if Mr Hippy had told us what to do. We were paying to learn from his experience – not to make every mistake again ourselves!

For those of you interested in building, he had one thing right. He was aiming for a construction cost of around $100 per square metre. He had screwed that down to $120 on his last project, and was looking at ways to hit $100. Obviously the first thing to do is to get 20 people to give you $500 each – that pays for all the materials and gives you at least 20 hours each of free labour. With that principle in mind, I reckon I could rebuild the Opera House for about $10,000.

When we got there, he’d already had a front end loader in with a bucket to excavate a circular foundation about 18 inches deep. Into that we dumped about a tonne of railway ballast, which we had to cart to the hole via a trio of the most beaten up, rickety wheel barrows that I have ever seen. I suggested after day one that we should hold a ceremonial bonfire of the wheel barrows in order to force a bit of expenditure on some better equipment, but why buy something new when you can use a totally clapped out bit of junk? It didn’t matter that we pulled muscles and dropped loads because they were total rubbish – at least we weren’t throwing stuff away.

All Greenies must die.

Shovelling railway ballast is a contradiction in terms – you can’t shovel it. It’s designed to lock together to form an immovable base for 10,000 tonne trains, so you can’t stick a shovel into it like gravel. A few of us spent some hours standing on the pile getting blisters and moving rocks. It was real chain gang material. That part went well, because as soon as we stumbled into the daylight from the introductory lecture on the evils of concrete foundations, the organized ones saw the pile, spotted the wheel barrows, grabbed all the available shovels and went to work.

Mr and Mrs Hippy (or should I say the “Principal Partners”) stood back and watched the dust fly. It all appeared to be too much for Mr Hippy – it looked like he had never seen people grab tools and go to work like that. I think he expected us to light up a bong and sit under a tree talking about whether the rocks really wanted to go into the bottom of the hole or not, and whether it was bad of us to force rocks into a hole that they didn’t want to inhabit.

By lunchtime, the hole was full of rocks (willing and unwilling) and topped off by sandbags. The idea is that the bales go on top of the sandbags, which presumably act as part of the damp course (sorry, I was mentally asleep through that part). We also put some high tensile wire through irrigation pipe and put that in under the ballast – those wires act as tie downs for the bales later on. I won’t try to explain it – let me just say that there were springy wires poking out of the ground everywhere.

Notice the kiddies in this photo. They spent the three days running all over the site, squabbling over toys and splashing in the bath tub (we had a tub there for water for the cement mixer). Personally, I am amazed that they are still alive and in one piece. How they did not end up electrocuted, burnt, bashed or broken limbed is a miracle of chance. Let me put it this way – the cement mixer was electric. Next to it was the bath tub. At one stage, the power cable was disconnected from the mixer and flicked into the bath tub by accident. Luckily, the kids were not in it, and someone had just unplugged the cable at the other end to run the circular saw. It was that kind of building site – haphazard, disorganized and a definite health hazard.

To summarise - I thought everyone knew the correct way to put a rake down. I was wrong. I trod on one and got a solid whack on the shoulder. Safety was not their first priority.

Other on-site hazards included several stupid dogs that ran around running into people carrying bales or wheeling barrows or cutting things with circular saws. Here is the dumbest of the lot with one of his favourite balls. This dog was so dumb, it had trouble chasing balls.

After the sand bags went down, the bales went up, and then the fun really started. I say that for two reasons – we then got to start playing with mud, and the Hippies spent all their time arguing. They have built at least 30 houses together as a commercial operation (some costing several million dollars) and they still have no idea what they are doing.

Because we built a circular wall, there were triangular gaps between the bales that needed filling. Here is what I was told over an 18 hour period:

  • Fill the gaps with mud and straw tonight (Mr Hippy)
  • Fill the gaps with straw only in the morning after trimming the bales with a whipper snipper (Mrs Hippy)
  • Why have you filled the gaps with mud before trimming? Mud conducts heat – you should have used straw! (Mr Hippy)
  • Fill the gaps before compressing the walls (Mr Hippy)
  • Why did you fill the gaps? We haven’t compressed the walls! (Mr Hippy)
  • This mud is too wet (Mr Hippy).
  • This mud (the exact same mud) is too dry (Mrs Hippy)
  • This mud (same mud) is too dry (Mr Hippy)
  • This mud has too much sand (Mr Hippy)
  • This mud (same mud) has too little sand (Mr Hippy)

You get my drift. Between the two of them, they managed to contradict each other and themselves at every stage of the construction. They couldn’t project manage the construction of a dunny, so I have no idea how they go on a multi million dollar housing project. Their clients must be very patient. Or rich. Or stupid.

This went on and on for three days. By lunch time on Monday, some people had had enough and they started leaving. Funnily enough, it was all the do gooders that seemed to split early. When BundyMan and I left (because of the drive home), those that were left consisted of a brickie, a builder, an IT guy (who looked like a brickie) and a landscaper (who was currently doing labouring on building sites). We found out during the last half hour or so that they were generally a very non-liberated, sexist, gun toting bunch of guys. They had attended the course because they were either:

  • Broke, and needed to build the cheapest possible house for themselves, or
  • They could see a buck in it building houses for Balmain basket weavers

We’d seen signs of that in the pub on the preceding two nights, but it came out nicely when a few of them ganged up on Marcus, the bright green Democrat voting astronomer and told him that both Gulf Wars were a good idea and that it was a pity that Bush Snr hadn’t finished the job in 1991.

All this was said out of earshot of Mrs Hippy, who has a very annoying, shrieking Kiwi. She would have had a fit if she had heard nice words being said about George W. on her property. None of us were game to confront her views – there’s nothing quiet so terrible as the totally righteous. No wonder the town hates them.

So, what did I learn?

For starters, my hands are pretty soft. A couple of hours of the shovel and a few blisters started popping up. I had to become a wimp and resort to work gloves.

Never let a hippy supervise anything more complicated than the making of a mung bean stew.

Making cement uses lots of energy. Making straw does not. Man plants the seed. Nature grows the seed. Combine harvesters collect the seed and balers bale the straw and trucks transport the straw and man builds houses with the straw.

Put big eaves on a straw bale house – at least 750mm, and preferably verandahs.

Hippies and brickies can argue all day about what lime is the best to use where (by that I mean building lime, not the stuff that you put into a Thai salad dressing).

A compressed straw bale wall is about as solid as a concrete wall.

Straw bale buildings are extremely well insulated (something about an insulation factor of 4, which might mean something to those that know something about building insulation), and I know that because I spent several stinking hot days in one, and it was very nice. It was in the high 30’s when we were working, and the buildings did not need air conditioning if they had insulation in the roof.

Wool seconds make great roofing insulation. About 4 inches in the ceiling does wonders, and it’s cheap.

Mud render is very difficult to apply to straw walls – there is definitely a technique to it. Some people go the easy route and wrap the bales in chicken wire and then shoot cement render at it using a pump. That costs more. If you are going the cheap way, get lots of friends to come round and get dirty. The dunny had around 10 metres of external wall, which was 2.7 metres high. We had to render the interior and exterior with 50mm of render. I calculated that roughly at 2.5 cubic metres of mud. Ron reckons that a cement mixer holds 0.4 cubic metres of stuff, so that is at least 60 mixer loads. It’s a lot of mud. And it goes on one handful at a time.

If you want a straw bale house, do not expect the walls to be straight.

Straw bale walls can be load bearing up to two storeys. You can also build using an infill technique if you want, but it costs more.

You can also use jumbo square bales for big buildings. You then end up with walls 3 to 4 feet thick.

Would I build one?

Yes, if I had a couple of acres somewhere with nothing on it. For a beach house or a weekender etc, it would be perfect. If you get it right, it costs next to nothing for heating or cooling. Any idiot can build one. A fairly incompetent builder like me can probably make it look alright, and because you don’t expect it to be square and plumb, incompetence is not a worry. They look great with recycled timber in the roof beams and second hand tin on the roof and second hand windows etc – very rustic. And very cheap.

And if you stuff it up totally, it is not that hard (or expensive) to demolish and do it again.

Plus I like the pavilion idea – BundyMan is thinking of pursuing it for Aboriginal housing in the NT. You put up a central kitchen/dining/living area and surround it with single room “pavilions” which provide a sleeping room for a couple or family or the kids etc. You have more kids, or need an office or guest room or store room, you put up another pavilion. Makes sense to me.

Would I recommend the course to anyone else? Yes. It would have been much more enjoyable, and fulfilling, if we had done three things:

  • Sorted out the management and project management side of things first thing on day one. There were enough leaders on the course to provide a team leader for a bunch of teams, and everyone else was perfectly happy to be bossed around and told what to do. However, everyone stupidly deferred to the hippies (since they were running the course) and we should have just taken control and used them for technical input.
  • I’ve become safety paranoid at work. I would have felt a lot better if we’d run toolbox meetings before each work session, and if we’d cleaned to the site up and run it more safely.
  • If we’d used the whiteboard and done some planning before each stage. They had a whiteboard, but it was generally viewed as the sole property of Mr Hippy (who is the only person that I have ever seen that was incompetent at using a white board to explain concepts).

If those three things had been in place, I might have finished this story off with a picture of the completed building. As it is, I reckon that I will drop into Ganmain next time I go to Wagga, and it will still be half complete.

Bloody hippies.

Alternatively, once Lippy gets back from her Secret Squirrel meetings in Washington, I will be in DestinationX every second weekend shoveling dirt into a cement mixer.



As a happy resident of Ganmain I was upset to see your article. I would not mind if it was factually correct - but its not.
I offer the following comments:
1. You said you stayed at the Ganmain Hotel which is opposite the Victory Gardens. This is not the Ganmain Hotel - the hotel is down the other corner of the main street - - so you have bagged the wrong place.
2. Ganmain is on most maps - I am not sure where you procured yours from.
3. we have an ATM in the main street - if you were staying at the Ganmain Hotel as you state then you would have had to walk straight past it.
4. you said town consists of a wheat silo and two pubs. We have only had one licensed pub since the Olympics in 2000, but we have a Golf Club and a Bowling Club that both serve meals.
5. And finally - leave the dog alone, he is a loving pet....
thats my five bobs worth in defence of my lovely town.

Yasirali said...

It is a building technique that uses straw bales (or even hay bales) for walls – which can be load-bearing, or used to infill a timber frame. It was pioneered in the US mid-west in the 19th century by farmers whose only building material was the waste from their wheat crop. The buildings were intended to be temporary until conventional building materials were delivered. However, they found them to be solid, warm and comfortable, and many continued to live in them in preference to traditional houses.