[GSBN] Low-cost Strawbale

David Arkin, AIA david at arkintilt.com
Tue Feb 23 10:30:31 CST 2016


John, All:

The goal of low-cost strawbale is an important one, and while custom residential has fueled its popularity, a good number of us on this list have participated in targeting affordable systems and simple designs that can help fill the housing need.  And as you note, your firm, Bob Theis and other CASBA members are generously making home plans available to fire victims, at least some of whom have the means and are choosing to rebuild with straw bale. 

Especially in light of the need for highly efficient, low initial embodied carbon building systems—plus here in CA where we have a zero net energy mandate in the year 2020—straw bale in any affordable form offers one of the best solutions out there.

However, this low-cost conversation must acknowledge another reality unrelated to building technology:  growing income inequality.  Currently on this planet the 62 richest persons hold the same amount of money as the lower 3.5 Billion persons.  Not all, but many people worldwide used to be able to afford a home, or be able to build one on a piece of land at little or no cost.  As we face the need to build better (safer, tighter, insulated and efficient) homes, the costs are going up at the same time that people's ability to pay for them is going down.  

We need both-and change.  Lower-cost homes and increased income equality leading to renewed buying power.  Political leadership that acknowledges and addresses it proactively along with a universal move toward the common good is the only path I see to the latter.  

Thanks for bringing this topic to the GSBN, and it'd be great if you would organize and lead a panel on Low-Cost Strawbale at the CASBA Conference in April.  In addition to Chris Magwood I know that Bill Steen, Bruce Hammond, Anthony Dente and others have interest in achieving more affordable wall systems.  

David 'Feeling the Bern' Arkin


On Feb 23, 2016, at 8:01 AM, John Swearingen <jswearingen at skillful-means.com> wrote:

> @Chris, we've looked and thought a lot about horizontal plastering, and originally designed a system like yours for volunteers on a chapel (yet to happen).  For us in California, where the earth does not stay still, that approach has some disadvantages.
> 
> First, there are a lot of seams between panels to deal with, and we have been able to use a wrap of good mesh around our buildings to distribute seismic loads. Baskets don't break, and continuous mesh solves a lot of problems with connections, as well as possible water intrusion.
> 
> Second, there are commercial considerations.  With an option to build off-site, the panels can be built while the foundation is being laid, saving construction time and allowing careful fabrication, in a shop, of all the elements--walls, windows, doors, everything. When panels are kept small, they can be handled without machinery. If the panels are plastered in the shop, they can't be moved much without a crane, so a relatively expensive element is introduced twice--at the shop, and again at the site. Keeping small also allows moving panels with small trucks with access to difficult sites. This is what Upside Down John Glasford does, probably because he's lazy and a cheapskate, both admirable qualities in a builder.
> 
> The self-build community is relatively small.  There are also old folks, lazy rich folks, busy folks, and impatient folks who want housing; most people, just want their house as quickly and painlessly as they can get it. Weighing commercial production, using plaster sub-contractors, against the cost savings for self-build or unskilled labor we tilt toward the commercial. Plastering is relatively cheap in California, and quick and efficient to schedule. In addition, continuous plaster, without apparent seams (interior or out), preserves the adobe/bale/old-world aesthetic that often leads people to strawbale. 
> 
> So that's the balance that seems appropriate for our conditions. It would be great if you and Upside-Down John could both come to California to hash this out at the conference!
> 
> John "Anti-crane Brain" Swearingen
> 
> 
> On Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 4:52 AM Chris Magwood <chris at endeavourcentre.org> wrote:
> Hi John, and others trying to respond to this housing need,
> 
> I would be glad to show any builders trying to work on behalf of this rebuilding effort how we have been using tip-up panels built on site to dramatically reduce construction time and cost.
> 
> I know I've been harping on about prefab for a long time now, and I've been honestly surprised at the lack of uptake/interest in general. But we really do have our costs down to $6-8 per square foot of wall at a good labor rate. And unlike bale raisings where people can help but often end up hindering, this is a process that can be taught and learned very quickly and where the quality of wall built by a beginner can be the same as that of a pro. The beauty of this system is that the walls are plastered lying flat, so that the amount of labor time is dramatically reduced and the panels are finish-ready as soon as they have been stood up.
> 
> I don't know what the timing is like for these projects, but I am willing to be at the CASBA meeting in April, and if there is interest I'd gladly demonstrate this tip-up system so that it can be shared with those in need.
> 
> Sincerely,
> 
> Chris
> 
> 
> On 16-02-22 10:59 PM, John Swearingen wrote:
>> This weekend Jenna Yu and I, attended the Rebuild Expo, a building expo geared toward people who had lost their homes in the Valley Fire--1200 homes burned in less than a day.  The area is not wealthy.
>> It was definitely a good place for us to be. Saturday morning began with a long, long line of registered people who lost their homes and who were given early access to the event.  Usually at these sorts of events there are people toying with building their own house, or remodeling their kitchen. This was different-- a mass of people desperately trying to figure out how to put themselves in housing once again.  They're highly motivated. Many, probably most, face serious obstacles--insurance settlements (if they had insurance) and property values, but also things like county requirements to bring infrastructure up to code (water, septic, electrical)--many people had older buildings with grandfathered systems. Our table was next to the County's, so we overheard a lot of discussions.  The County is doing its best, and will stretch regulations whenever they can for people's benefit, but.... 
>> Jenna & I, representing Skillful Means, were the ones there identified with straw, so I think we got most of the questions. There was a lot of interest. Perhaps "longing" is a better word, because people want to choose a natural home but are on limited means. We introduced strawbale to the many people who had little familiarity with it, and were pleased at how open they were to new ideas. And there was a LOT of interest from everyone in the possibilities of low-cost construction and the panel system we're developing (with help from "upside down" John). They really want to be able to afford it, and not be condemned to buy a toxic manufactured box.
>> We're offering free house plans of  completed projects, and most people felt they couldn't afford what we normally design. Folks have been hammered with every conceivable building method--promising very low bottom lines--but definitely were interested in something natural and healthy, and were excited that it was being presented to them. We need to do more outreach to these communities. They are working hard to sort out their futures, and the future of their communities. 
>> There's also a number of people who have heard of strawbale and dismissed it, but they're often happy to tell us about it; "rodents!! they're everywhere!".  I'm always happy to chat with them. 
>> Strawbale has been fueled and financed in California by the well-off, and that's allowed us to learn a lot about how to design with straw. The folks this weekend don't have a lot of money to spend on housing, and having the opportunity to work with people who fled from the woods with only the shirts on their backs, was personally very satisfying. 
>> The thousands of people of modest means who are now homeless can inspire us to use our knowledge and experience to make good housing available to average people. I’m inspired by their determination to make it work, and I would urge the strawbale community to respond to their needs.
>> John (don't flame me!) Swearingen
>> 
>> 
> 
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> 
> -- 
> Chris Magwood
> Director, Endeavour Centre
> www.endeavourcentre.org
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*  *  *  *  *
Arkin Tilt Architects
Ecological Planning & Design
1101 8th St. #180, Berkeley, CA  94710
510/528-9830 ext. 2#
www.arkintilt.com

David Arkin, AIA, Architect
LEED Accredited Professional
CA #C22459/NV #5030

Director, California Straw Building Association
www.strawbuilding.org
CASBA is a project of the Tides Center

"There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."
— A. J. Muste 






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