[GSBN] Prefab hoe-down

Bob Theis bob at bobtheis.net
Wed Feb 24 20:59:04 CST 2016

Chris has been advocating for prefabricating bale walls for so many years, and wondering why the slow uptake of the approach, that he  merits a considered reply from one of the holdouts. 

It’s all  Matts’  and Judy’s fault.   When they gave their first straw bale workshop in California, I had just finished some stud-framed  projects where I was calling for  double stud walls to get some visual weight,  and beating the plasterers over the head to create surfaces and corners that were NOT perfectly straight and flat. I came away saying, “ There must be a way to create thick informal walls that’s intrinsically thick, intrinsically  informal. “ …and I got my answer. Straw bale  was thick , it was informal, and if you wanted perfect surfaces and straight corners that was extra work, instead of extra work to relax them.  

And I wasn’t alone.   When the first bale  project got some publicity, we were getting a LOT of phone calls from people who wanted to know more. This was 1992,  before all the wonderful books, so we’d spend considerable time with these calls, and it was evident that,  while the ecological and superinsulative qualities  gave them permission to pursue this offbeat technique, it was the relaxed character of the walls that was the real  pull. The emotional pull. 

Maybe it was our cartoon-based upbringing. Witness Mickey Mouse’s kitchen at Disney World. Try not to barf at the saccharine color scheme, and focus on the room and objects, because this is by folks who know what appeals. The basic geometry is still rectangular, but the hard edges have been taken off. 

So I bow before the success of prefabrication in  reducing  the costs of bale building, but continue to fret about the stiffness that this moves the material toward.  Yes, you can plaster  bale filled panels by hand, and be as informal about the resulting surface  as you care to be, but it is primarily the edges where we read the nature of the walls, and prefabricated panels give you machine-made edges. 

To me, the most sobering,  and challenging,  statement in the bale literature is still the woman who said, “ I wanted a bale house, but what I got is a house with bales in the walls.” 

I’m sure large parts of the population will be perfectly happy with bales in the walls. Especially if it makes the difference between having  a house or not.  

 But it feels like movement in the wrong  direction. 


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