[GSBN] Prefab hoe-down

Chris Magwood chris at endeavourcentre.org
Thu Feb 25 07:03:35 CST 2016

Hi Bob,

It may come as a surprise, but I agree with you on many levels. My 
pursuit of prefab solutions was at first entirely cost-driven, because I 
could see no way that more than a small handful of lovely, curvy, 
hand-made straw bale homes were ever going to get built because it 
requires too much labour for such homes to ever be built in any volume 
(and I know that there are a few builders who will protest and point to 
their examples of bale buildings built "traditionally" at great speed... 
but the recipe for such builds involves many rare ingredients... largely 
crew members who are willing to blow through hard, heavy work at great 
speed). My first bale home was the lumpiest, curviest thing ever, and my 
next one (whenever that happens) will also avoid all the straight edges. 
And yet I still think prefab ideas are important to pursue.

I still see cost as the key barrier to adoption of straw bale building, 
as well as the difficulties of working with loose straw and wet plaster 
in an urban environment. This thread began because John pointed out that 
the fire victims he was speaking with had limited means, and that led me 
to suggest prefab solutions. The fire victims weren't asking for a 
particular aesthetic, I'm guessing, but rather a home that they could 
build affordably. After all the builds I've done, I know that the only 
way I can build affordably with bales is to prefab (maybe that just 
means tip-up panels made on site). Or else I can exploit a young and 
enthusiastic crew who are willing to work insanely hard for moderate 
wages... that works too, but it's tough to repeat those projects 

I am further driven to pursue prefab solutions by my recent plunge into 
assessing the carbon footprint of new buildings. Having modeled all 
kinds of buildings to create a set of carbon figures, it is clear that 
the amount of carbon sequestered in a straw bale building can offer a 
truly meaningful solution to society at large as we try to meet carbon 
reduction targets. A straw bale building can have close to a net zero 
carbon footprint, while also helping to ensure low carbon output over 
the lifespan of the building, and it is a unique beast in that way. 
Frankly, from this point of view I don't care if the bale buildings are 
square, wavy, round or machine-edged... if we can replace foam and 
fiberglass with straw in high quantities in any form, we collectively 
benefit from the massive reductions in carbon. And again, I see prefab 
solutions as the only way to bring meaningful volume of these "carbon 
suckers" into being.

Building prefab doesn't preclude site-built options. It just expands the 
options available, and allows people with low-incomes and/or those who 
like straight edges a way in to all the benefits we know and love about 
straw bale.

PS, I think the "hard" edges of a prefab wall can be well softened with 
a final coat of hand-applied clay plaster (red) or lime paint (white).

On 16-02-24 9:59 PM, Bob Theis wrote:
> 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.
> Bob
> _______________________________________________
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> -- 
> Chris Magwood
> Director, Endeavour Centre
> www.endeavourcentre.org
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