Straw Bale Walls!

August, 2018

Even though “WE ARE STILL NOT DONE WITH OUR ROOF” (but I can assure you progress is still being made on that front), for the sake of our mental health we’ve decided to hop ahead to building the walls beneath the roof. Here’s where a lifetime of building with Legos will finally begin to pay off–because isn’t a straw bale just a very large, prickly Lego?

We started by building the foundation for each straw bale wall, called a “toe-up,” a four inch high barrier between the wall and the floor, meant to protect the bales from some unspecified future disaster involving plumbing.

The toe-ups are angled at the doorway to initiate curved doorway openings.

Once the toe-ups were installed, we needed to pound in nails partway to act as Velcro hooks holding the bales in place. This was an ideal kid-job.

Just one more picture because those kids are just so cute.

Next we poured perlite between the runners to insulate the toe-ups and support the bale walls.


Now for some bales! The first were laid with much pomp and ceremony.

Since then, it’s been just sweat, guesswork, straw-slivers, and itchy arms. Similar to laying bricks (or Legos!) we aim to keep a running bond pattern. The work is complicated, however, by the support posts, which we didn’t build with the size of straw bales in mind. So when we come to a post we need to notch the bales to fit: I measure the bales and spray-paint notches that need to be cut, and J. uses the chainsaw to cut along the dotted lines.

Not blood. Spray-paint.


Many bales need to be retied before the notches can be cut, or they simply need to be made shorter, and that’s when I use a homemade “bale needle” to resew the bales. Here’s a picture of the bale needle, along with the kit of tools you need at your sewing station.

Also a tape measure and spray paint, which I always leave somewhere besides my sewing station.

And here are the steps to resewing a bale:

I have an inkling that all this sewing and notching makes this process maybe just a touch slow. But, hey, one of the bonuses of never having straw-baled a house before is that we have no idea how long it’s supposed to take!

We’re stacking bales nearly against the sides of window and door openings, leaving a small gap that we’ll stuff with straw in order to create a curved leading into each opening. More on how we do that in the next post. Because I’m trying to keep you in suspense, not at all because we don’t actually know how to do it and will figure out how as we go. That would be a very unwise way to build a house. Who would be so ignorant?

[crickets chirping…]

Once we build the wall nearly to the top, we compress the bales, which will leave the wall in tension and (hopefully) stronger when we stuff the topmost row in. To compress the bales we send ratcheting straps over the top of the wall with a piece of plywood protecting the bales, then use a car jack against the 2×8 sill to squeeze the wall down. With the straps ratcheted down tight enough to keep the wall compressed, we swipe out the jack and ram in the last bale, then pull out the straps. And on to the neighboring bale.

All around the house the bales will end at the top of that 2×8. The triangular peaks of the gable end walls won’t be baled–we’ll use our extra sheets of reclaimed insulation up there.

It’s been amazing to watch this structure with a roof quickly become a house–all it needed were walls with window-holes and door-holes. One morning while working I was stopped in my tracks by polygons of light on the (someday) kitchen floor, formed by light puddling beneath the two kitchen window-holes. So. Hello.

I had to greet it, this light my eyes will track across the floor as I sit with my coffee, and over a lifetime of mornings it will become as familiar as the mug in my hand. These diamonds of light, now alighting on bits of straw on the floor and tools in disarray, will someday illuminate a worn rug at the kitchen sink and perhaps stray sheets of homework.

To see them will be to know that I am home.

P.S. We’re stockpiling all the loose straw for jumping in.



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