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GSBN: Digest for 5/12/03
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- Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 23:16:32 -0500
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-> RE: GSBN:CalifoRnian values (was re: from the Crest list)
by Rene Dalmeijer rened@...
-> Climate and SB
-> Re: GSBN:"Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"
by Paul Lacinski paul@...
-> Magic Bales (was re: "Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative'
by Mark Piepkorn duckchow@...
-> RE: GSBN:CalifoRnian values (was re: from the Crest list)
Date: 12 May 2003 05:30:33 -0500
From: Rene Dalmeijer rened@...
Subject: RE: GSBN:CalifoRnian values (was re: from the Crest list)
Due to structural nature of a SB wall it will have far less cold bridges
then stick frame. Cold bridges are easily made visible to lays by telling
people about the telltale dry strips on the exterior on misty early
mornings. Therefore they are much more likely to get R-30 of SB then the
R-19 of fiberglass ie SB is going to be about twice as good.
At 01:44 AM 5/12/03, you wrote:
>I haven't figured out a way to say it more concisely, and still convey the
>needed information. Plenty of people have come up to me and said, "I hear
>that strawbales are only R-30. Since fiberglass is R-19, why should I
>bother with bales?" I think it takes a bit of explanation to clarify the
>fallacies in that kind of statement.
Date: 12 May 2003 10:51:49 -0500
Subject: Climate and SB
...I know that I seldom show up on any listserves these days but wanted
to toss in my two cents worth on this discussion of the Minnesota failure
and dealing with moisture in general. Some time ago someone asked during
a talk I gave whether it wasn't true that you can only build straw bale
houses in dry places. I agreed. I then added that you can design and
build dry places in almost any climate.
The critical thing is that we need to be designing and detailing and
building these buildings according to climate - not just the overall
climate of a place but the micro climates around the specific site on and
on different sides of the building. The more the materials you build with
are subject to moisture damage the more care is necessary. But as I think
JoE said, the key is building so that moisture that gets in can get out.
Here's the quick and dirty idea of it. If you have seen failed double
pane windows - two pieces of GLASS separated by the highest tech
materials we can come up with and built in a factory - what would ever
lead someone to believe that we could build something in the field, with
all the varied materials that we use and the extreme variability of
design and construction skill - and moisture won't get into the building
and the assemblies? It will, guaranteed. So we should be thinking more
like the Europeans (new and old - and BTW Canada in spite of its
proximity is more European than we might think at least where this matter
is concerned) who assume that moisture is going to get in and think a
whole lot about ensuring that it can get out. In the U.S. we think a
whole lot about preventing wetting and pay significantly less attention
You have to figure out for the specific climate and building:
*What the moisture loads are likely to be - i.e. wind driven rain on
majorly exposed walls or internal loads such as in bathrooms and kitchens
or firewood storage areas.
*How to deal with each of those loads in a way that reduces the
likelihood that a lot of moisture will get in - i.e. bigger overhangs,
porches to protect those areas, rainscreen wall design, and proper
ventilation of interior moisture in high source areas and elimination of
the problem if possible - i.e. store your firewood under cover outside,
vent your bathroom and kitchen (and your clothes dryer!) to the outside
with an exhaust fan, etc.
*Pay attention to which way the moisture is going to move in your
location at different times of year and under different conditions. Pay
attention to some building science - moisture moves from warm to cool,
high humidity to low, and a lot of moisture can be carried in the air so
be very careful about having major air leaks into walls from the warmer,
more humid side of the wall - which can change seasonally in mixed
*Don't let your bales get wet during (or before construction), don't do
Santa Fe style (my own long standing bias that is not limited to straw
bale - the roof should more than cover the tops of the walls or else you
have a lot of other stuff you need to pay very careful attention to),
design and build your windows so that ALL the moisture that accumulates
on either side of your windows (whether exterior or interior sources) and
leaks down through the window into the wall is led all the way to the
outside of your wall - I mean complete pan flashing under windows that
are exposed to rain or in very cold climates where there might be a lot
of condensation in the winter and sloped sills that extend beyond the
wall with drip edges etc.
The goal is to keep as much moisture out as you can without jeopardizing
the other goal of making sure the moisture that does get in can get out.
The drier the climate the less rigor is required to a point. SB buildings
in Tucson have had major moisture problems and needed to have the bales
replaced - I can think of three without trying - you can get away with a
lot in the sahara or death valley but otherwise you need to pay attention
to these things.
Got to go...
David Eisenberg - on a sustainability and codes odyssey in the Pacific
NW - Portland, Eugene, and today - Olympia, tomorrow Seattle/King County,
Wednesday Ellensburg, Thursday Spokane, then back to Portland for the
final weekend of the Village Building Convergence (check out
www.cityrepair.org - awesome!)
David Eisenberg, Director
Development Center for Appropriate Technology
P.O. Box 27513, Tucson, AZ 85713
(520) 624-6628 voice / (520) 798-3701 fax
The Development Center for Appropriate Technology is a 501(c)(3)
non-profit organization. Our primary support comes from foundation grants
and charitable contributions from individuals and businesses, and from
our educational and training programs and consulting services. Our
mission is to enhance the health of the planet and our communities by
promoting a shift to sustainable construction and development practices
through leadership, strategic relationships, and education. To learn
about DCAT's work and how you can support it, please visit our website at
Date: 12 May 2003 15:17:12 -0500
From: Paul Lacinski paul@...
Subject: Re: GSBN:"Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"
I visited this house while under construction, in the summer of 1998,
and was dismayed by what I found there. Construction was proceeding
everywhere at once, though only a couple of people were on site.
Bits of scaffolding were leaning at odd angles at various locations
around the building. Some tools were upside down. I recall resisting
the rising feeling that the people in charge were insane.
I was specifically concerned that the bales were completely unsealed.
On the interior, they were set against a poly vapor barrier. On the
exterior, they were covered by these odd precast stucco panels, which
were minimally attached to the structure. The joints between the
panels were "sealed" with some kind of rope. There was alot of talk
(lecturing, really, with a distinct missionary edge) of low-cost
details. I was trying to keep my head above the waves of
disorientation, grasping at flotsam, of which there was plenty. At
one point we floated over to a window, to examine the low-cost
solution to the usually labor-intensive job of plastering the return.
What I found there was a piece of foam with a skim coat of plaster
applied directly. The plaster was so thin that over much of the
surface, I could see the pink color of the foam peeking through. I
asked about the finish coat material, and was informed that there was
to be no finish coat; this was it. This piece of foam was my
psychological liferaft- I finally understood that low-cost, in this
case, meant cheaply and poorly made. I left as quickly as I could,
because there was clearly nothing I could say that would change the
course of this project.
Now, if someone had asked me how long this house was going to last, I
would have said something along the lines of "less than 30 years, for
sure." I would never have guessed that 5 years later, it would be
gone. Straw is not only not magic; among building materials, it's
unusually susceptible to damage by water.
So far this season, I have been called in for diagnosis of water
damage in 4 bale houses built way back in the last millennium; less
than ten years ago. There was one roof leak, one burst pipe, one
serious design flaw which allowed massive exfiltration and subsequent
wetting at the top of the wall, and one which I haven't figured out
yet. This might be educational work, but it's not very enjoyable.
We also have one project from this era which I think has a persistent
smell of damp straw, though the owners claim otherwise. I had kind
of stopped worrying about it, but it may be time to start again....
>This black eye for SB has been long in coming--and to be frank, I'm
>glad it finally got here. Who was it that first said, "Bales aren't
>magic"? Linda Chapman? Yakwoman? Kim Thompson? I seem to remember it
>coming from a woman's voice. But maybe it was Matts.
>(When I still lived in Minnesota, I met with these Community
>EcoDesign Network people once, about two years before they did the
>doomed project discussed below. They already scared me then, and
>that was when I knew even less about strawbale than I do now. Rob
>Tom, who has always been charitable--if occasionally crotchety--once
>suggested to me that they "might be doing good work in spite of
>themselves." I think he meant philosophical work rather than
>physical work; but unfortunately, neither seems to have been very
>good in the end.)
>(Joyce, Chris--ten hut! This is TLS fodder!)
>(I would post this to the CREST list if I could. Their software
>evidently hates me, or maybe all people like me. Anyway, if anybody
>else wants to, g'head.)
>- - - - -
>"Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"
>Steve Brandt, Star Tribune
>Published May 10, 2003
>What makes it heartbreaking, people say, is how eagerly Sherri
>Simmons looked forward to moving into the new farmhouse-style house
>just off Lake Street in Minneapolis.
>"I've been excited from beginning to end," she said in 1998 as the
>house neared completion.
>This was no ordinary house. It was a house stuffed with straw -- in
>the walls, in the foundation, and, under the original plans, in the
>The nonprofit developers boasted that the house was only the third
>straw- insulated house erected under the Minnesota building code.
>They touted it as a groundbreaker for sustainable and affordable
>Then the straw began to rot.
>Simmons no longer lives in the house because it no longer exists. It
>was condemned by the city and demolished last year.
>All that's left is her mortgage and a junk-strewn vacant lot. She
>still owes at least $60,000.
>Some see the disappearance of 3128 5th Av. S. as a cautionary tale
>about trying too many innovative technologies at once. Straw
>insulation was only one in a grab bag of techniques billed as
>innovations in the 1,300-square-foot house.
>"It just became so Rube Goldbergish that I questioned it even before
>construction started," said Dean Zimmermann, a contractor who had
>unsuccessfully bid to build the house. He is now a City Council
>Two Minneapolis nonprofit agencies, Southside Neighborhood Housing
>Services and the Community Eco-Design Network, teamed up in the mid-
>1990s and worked together on the straw-bale house.
>Eco-Design co-founders Eric Hart and Rick Peterson said they could
>deliver a house with prefabricated modular construction for less
>cost than standard city-subsidized housing.
>Their system included insulating straw bales stacked inside a
>post-and-beam frame. Instead of a basement, a slab of concrete was
>poured over additional bales.
>All that straw kept the house warm with only a water heater
>circulating water through the flooring. On the outside, the house
>was encased in prefabricated stucco siding panels and topped off
>with a metal roof.
>Southside had a 20-year record of providing loans and grants to
>people with moderate or lower incomes to buy and renovate housing.
>It acted as the house's developer, while Eco-Design's role was
>winning plan approval, handling bidding and managing construction.
>One preconstruction budget for the project totaled $91,000, but the
>house ended up costing more than $200,000, Hart said. The state
>contributed $20,000, and other nonprofits committed more. Southside
>absorbed the brunt of the costs, selling the house to Simmons for
>The project was unusual enough that Don Olson, who reviews building
>plans for the city, required an architect and a structural engineer
>to sign off on the plans. Peterson, the architect, and W.T. McCally,
>the structural engineer, did so.
>Disagreement still exists over just what went wrong.
>Some blame the design; others mention the low quality of work done
>by volunteers who worked on the job.
>Construction began in 1998 and dragged on for months. Visitors
>recall seeing power tools being charged with solar cells, and rain
>soaking into straw bales. Jim Buesing said he had a gut feeling that
>although the crew was strong on enthusiasm, there were complications
>from weaving together alternate building techniques.
>"I've been around the alternative movement enough to know that what
>they were trying to do was beyond their capacity," said Buesing, who
>leads a nonprofit housing agency that contributed a small amount of
>There were signs that the project was running out of funds.
>Volunteer workers helped to cut costs.
>"When you have volunteers involved, you're not necessarily going to
>have quality construction," said Shawn Young, who worked on the
>house early on.
>According to Southside's director, Earl Rogers, there were
>personality clashes, too, especially when architect Peterson took
>over after the contractor reduced his role in the project.
>"He just alienated everybody," Rogers said. Peterson championed the
>prefab siding panels. but others found them unwieldy, brittle and in
>need of more testing.
>Simmons fit the Southside criterion of earning less than half of the
>region's median income when she and her two children moved in. She
>was a graduate of Southside's homebuyer education program. She
>started a day-care business, soon buying several houses, including
>one next door, for her enterprise.
>Everyone involved agrees that the beginning of the end started when
>the straw began to mold.
>But they disagree over how it got damp. Some point to uncovered
>bales during construction. Some say the roof overhang didn't offer
>enough protection. Rogers blamed a lack of roof flashing and poorly
>sealed vents and siding panels. Peterson said the cause was that the
>attic wasn't filled with bales and was improperly ventilated.
>A lack of straw in the attic meant that warm interior air condensed
>against the metal roof, he said, ran down the underside and dripped
>onto the straw.
>Southside hired a contractor to fix the problems. The bales were
>pulled out and were to be replaced with other insulation.
>But then the city stepped in. Connie Fournier, a city inspections
>manager, said that without the straw and exterior paneling, the
>house swayed in the wind. It shifted enough that a sliding door no
>Peterson insisted that the straw served merely as insulation and
>played no structural role. But an inspector condemned the building,
>citing structural hazards and ordering changes to the foundation,
>walls and joists.
>Still, condemnation didn't seal the house's fate. Southside could
>have made the repairs. But Rogers said Southside didn't have enough
>In 2000, a state audit had severely criticized Southside's handling
>of more than $1.1 million in public money. And the builders'
>warranty insurer refused to pay out, saying it didn't cover
>"It's very distressing to the organization that it took two years to
>build and it didn't last," said Walt Gutzmer, a Southside board
>member who lives down the alley.
>So the house came down last spring. Simmons lived for a time in the
>house next-door, which she had bought for her day care center. She
>has since moved on and didn't return repeated calls for this story.
>But she remains on the hook for six mortgages on the property. The
>biggest was for a $66,400 loan made by U.S. Bank. Rogers said some
>parties to the financing are trying to work out debt relief for
>Simmons, but multiple target dates for wrapping up a deal have come
>Rogers said Simmons continued payments on the house even after
>demolition, until settlement talks began.
>A lack of closure for the failed venture has had other consequences
>for Southside. A sister agency in north Minneapolis has been
>discussing assuming administrative control over troubled Southside
>but doesn't want to assume its obligations. The straw house is one
>issue holding up the takeover.
>Meanwhile, architect Peterson of Eco-Design indicated that he was
>unaware of the house's demise until contacted by a reporter.
>"I spent a whole year on this house and I didn't make anything on
>it," he said. "It really hurts me to know it's demolished."
>Steve Brandt is at 612-673-4438 or sbrandt@...
>For instructions on joining, leaving, or otherwise using the GSBN
>list, send email to GSBN@...HELP in the
>SUBJECT line. ----
PO Box 107
463 Main St.
Ashfield, MA 01330 USA
Date: 12 May 2003 15:44:10 -0500
From: Mark Piepkorn duckchow@...
Subject: Magic Bales (was re: "Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative'
(Crossposted to SB-r-us and CREST.)
- - - - - -
You people are no fun at all. Where's the panic? the gnashing of teeth,
the pulling of hair? the sackcloth, the ashes? What's the point in my
laying bait if there's no suckers to take it? ... *laughing*
The place was, of course, designed and built wrong - for just about any
climate, let alone Minnesota's freakish weather.
Some of you may remember years ago when one of the CEN's cofounders was on
the CREST list and (when he wasn't asking people to give him things) talked
about some of their "innovative" ideas, which seemed as often as not to fly
in the face of building science, accepted good strawbale practice of the
day (which hasn't at its core changed, but has been refined), not to
mention common sense. People like crotchety RT and seldom-seen DE and
others calmly, thoroughly, repeatedly 'splained just why, to the benefit of
everybody but, evidently, the CEN folks.
It astonishes me still that those people had access to such a wealth of
experience and knowledge... and instead of learning from it, fought against
it. True enough, innovations often come from rethinking established ways of
doing things; but to ignore the basic underlying principles of a thing
(such as, in this case, strawbale with regard to moisture, which was nicely
summed up here by DE in a too-rare appearance), that's asking for trouble.
Rob Tom ArchiLogic@... wrote:
>I'm also pretty sure that it was Don who coined the phrase which
>Duck Foo'd is confused about. It appeared in the 1997 Fibrehouse
>Report by Bob Platts "Pilot Study of Moisture Control in Stuccoed
>Straw Bale Walls"
I got that excellent report when it came out, but thought that the phrase
had been bandied about (on the CREST list) prior to that. Can't search
those archives anymore, alas.
>The Minnesota CEN debacle really shouldn't serve as a disincentive
>to SBC. It should merely be a disincentive to ignore basic,
>established good building practise.
Yeah, totally. (I guess the suckerbait did work, after all, heh-heh... on
the formidably crotchety RT, no less.) Edited pertinent bits excised from
an offlist conversation:
- - - - - -
...arrogant... which probably would be acceptable if [they] had any regard
for building science, or even common sense. When I first met with [them] in
'96 or so, as a mostly-abject newbie to SB I was horrified to realize that
even I knew more than [they] did... Their ideas were in large measure
fraught with the seeds of tragedy, which evidently blossomed fully in the
South Minneapolis project.
...DOCUMENTATION. When these places fail - and some of these places will -
there needs to be DOCUMENTATION that can be waved around showing that
[people] violated common, accepted, recognized practices. (And not just SB
Yeah, I think that there's going to be a backlash against SB. And I
thought it would have come by now. I also think it's going to ultimately
*benefit* SB when it finally hits...
Glassford's response on the CREST list largely sums up my take on things.
- - - - - -
Date: 12 May 2003 18:47:39 -0500
Subject: RE: GSBN:CalifoRnian values (was re: from the Crest list)
I like Derek's explanation a lot, partly cause it is true, and partly
because it deals properly with peoples preconceptions.
I like screwing people up by adding that SB walls have the potential to
be very airtight which is good for saving energy and improving help.
People get the idea that "breathable" means air goes through SB -- lets
Dept of Civil Engineering and School of Architecture
University of Waterloo
- -----Original Message-----
From: GSBN [mailto:GSBN@...] On Behalf Of Derek Roff
Sent: May 11, 2003 19:44
Subject: RE: GSBN:CalifoRnian values (was re: from the Crest list)
> The difference between R-30 and
> R-45 means the difference between 0.033 Btu/hr/SF/F and 0.022
> Btu/hr/SF/F. Repeat after me, "It just doesn't matter! It just
> doesn't matter." I suggest we move on to other, more meaningful
In terms of a functioning house, I agree with Nehemiah that the exact
R-value for SB doesn't matter. I also like the statement that I
first heard from Danny Buck of Living Structures: The R-value of a
strawbale wall is "enough."
When it comes to educating the public about strawbale building, I
feel a need to say more. What I say these days is something like, "A
straw bale has a R-value of 45 or 50. A well-built wall can have an
R-value of 30 for the entire wall, according to tests done at Oak
Ridge National Laboratories. Fiberglass batts for 2 x 6 framing are
rated at R-19 for the material, so that's less than half of the value
for a straw bale. Oak Ridge tested frame walls insulated with
fiberglass batts, and measured R-values from a little over R-7 to
R-12. As with the raw materials, a fiberglass-insulated frame wall
will yield less than half the insulative value of a strawbale wall."
I haven't figured out a way to say it more concisely, and still
convey the needed information. Plenty of people have come up to me
and said, "I hear that strawbales are only R-30. Since fiberglass is
R-19, why should I bother with bales?" I think it takes a bit of
explanation to clarify the fallacies in that kind of statement.
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