Saturday, March 04, 2006

I Interviewed the Owner of a Straw Bale Home; Very Cheap to Build

This past week I interviewed Barry Ford in Lancaster SC about the straw bale house that he built with his wife and son, who was then 8 yrs old. The house is 2300 square feet and cost them only $13,000. That works out to $5.65 per square foot! Wow. I'm not sure what usual construction costs are in Charlotte, but I'm told that in Chapel Hill, construction of a conventional house is about $130 per square foot.

The Fords had no labor costs, because they did they whole thing themselves. Barry says they used about 30% less wood than a conventional stick-built home. There are no studs in the walls. The water pipes and electrical wires run under the floor, so there's nothing in the walls but bales of straw, laid flat so the walls are 22 inches thick. That's a lot of insulation. The bales are covered with stucco inside and out.

They got the bales pretty cheap - Barry said he and his wife drove around in the back country looking for farmers baling hay. When they saw one, they'd stop and ask him if they could buy the bales. They got 50 to 100 at a time, sometimes paying as little as 75 cents, up to as much as $3 a bale. The house now has more than 1000 bales in it.

They've had no trouble at all with moisture. He said they actually had to add a little moisture to the bales, because if they're too dry, the straw is too brittle. They have a little moisture meter sticking out of the straw in one of the window wells to keep track of the moisture content, although it hasn't changed. The only place you can actually see the straw is in his "truth window," a glass pane in the wall that shows the straw behind it.

Barry says building a straw bale house is cheap, but not if you hire a contractor to do it. The construction of a straw bale home actually takes longer than a conventional house, so the labor costs can be high. The good thing about building with straw bales is that a family of three can do it alone. The only thing the Fords got help with was putting the roof trusses into place, a total of 7 hours of assistance.

The house was pretty interesting. Building with straw is a good choice environmentally because straw is actually a waste product. It's the inedible stem of a grain like wheat or rice, after the grain has been removed. Using a straw and stucco wall means you're not using other materials, which require energy to produce and transport. Some wall systems, like OSB board, are toxic. OSB board "offgases" toxic fumes in homes, and creates toxins during manufacturing.

The Ford's straw bale home will be one of the green and economical housing choices featured in our upcoming book from Fulcrum, The Power of Your Pocketbook: How Americans' Spending Habits Shape our World.

No comments: