[GSBN] vaulted straw bale house

Derek Stearns Roff derek at unm.edu
Tue May 19 10:12:21 CDT 2015

I love it that people are willing to try out new and experimental things.  Embracing the unknown can be wonderful, but when the known factors include the shortage of time and a limited labor budget, they may be stacking the deck against themselves, before they even start stacking the bales.  EJ’s description of the situation gives many reasons to think that this project would lead to heartbreak.  A consistent thread among the stories of the successful strawbale vaults is that there were unexpected problems and enormous delays.

One of the frequent claims for strawbale building is that it is simple.  That flies out the window when building a vault (and installing windows in a vault brings its own new set of problems).  Reading the description below, I’m reminded of the three wise words of advice for every building project:  Simplify, simplify, simplify.


Derek Roff
derek at unm.edu<mailto:derek at unm.edu>

On Apr 15, 2015, at 10:53 PM, ejgeorge at riseup.net<mailto:ejgeorge at riseup.net> wrote:

Hello all,

Some local (northeast US) farmer friends have approached us about trying to build a vaulted straw bale house this summer. They aren't set on it, but the concept has some potential advantages for them -- mainly, they can build it inside a very large greenhouse on site so would only need the balework completed by fall to have an insulated workspace over the winter. The greenhouse would provide protection for the structure til they resume work in the spring (and possibly even allow some work to continue over winter); they also like the aesthetics.

Things are very vague at this point but based on their preliminary drawings from various things they found on the web and some ideas of their own, they're suggesting:
-- I think it was about 20' wide, 24' long; 2 story with full downstairs & an upstairs loft
-- mostly exterior timber frame, but with interior posts extending through the peak of the vault to hold a ridge pole. Ridge pole & exterior frame then support a ~conventional roof above the vaulted bales. (One possibility: the rafter cavity could then be blown with cellulose to create a super-insulated roof and decrease the need for perfectly modified bales or significant stuffing of gaps between bales in the vaulted section). Likely only the vaulted roof would be in place over the winter, conventional one added after greenhouse is dissembled in the spring.

While we find the vault idea intriguing, it's certainly out of our area of expertise - and while it would be fun to experiment, our availability will be rather limited and they've got a farm to run. We're leaning towards recommending something more conventional to cut down on unknowns that could turn into significant complications to the cost & schedule, but it's clear they'd definitely like to go for it if it were possible...so, our main questions on their behalf:

1. is this even feasible for two full time farmers to pull off? Our schedule will only allow limited assistance. He has carpentry & a wee bit of straw bale experience and hopes to dedicate himself about half-time to building; they're both pretty sharp; there is the possibility of some work parties and farmhand help, but otherwise a limited budget for hired help. They're hoping for enclosure by winter & occupancy by next year.
2. with mostly owner-builder work, is there any benefit to this cost-wise? time-wise?
3. general tips, suggestions, etc for building vaults? and particularly for a cold & wet climate?
4. any comments on the their design ideas?

They've already run across some projects by some of you (Bob Theis, Mikal Jakubal), but other resources would be appreciated. Oh, and they found a really cool free standing dome in Slovenia:
http://minke-strawbaledome.blogspot.com/ , www.createrra.sk<http://www.createrra.sk>
My kids are very keen to ski off that roof!!

Thanks for any input!


ej George & Aaron Dennis
Tugley Wood Timberframing
6301 Searsburg Road
Trumansburg, NY 14886

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