[GSBN] Low-cost Strawbale

John Swearingen jswearingen at skillful-means.com
Tue Feb 23 11:00:20 CST 2016

I'm reminded that part of the conversation about income inequality, when it
comes to building, involves regulation. The requirements for
infrastructure, still very minimal in the fire area, made rebuilding
difficult for some, and in other, more affluent counties, those regulations
can make even middle-income housing too expensive, encouraging de facto
segregation...and sending teachers, nurses and fireman further and further
away from the communities they serve.

On Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 8:45 AM David Arkin, AIA <david at arkintilt.com>

> 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 Centrewww.endeavourcentre.org
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> David Arkin, AIA, Architect
> LEED Accredited Professional
> CA #C22459/NV #5030
> Director, California Straw Building Association
> www.strawbuilding.org
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