The Original Nebraska Straw Bale Buildings

For a long time I wanted to see the original 100-year-old straw bale buildings in Nebraska, so on a drive across the continent I included Nebraska on the tour. My first stop was Arthur Nebraska, where I met up with Jake and Lucille Cross.

Jake Cross took me to see the Martin/Monhart house, a home that was built in 1925 out of baled late-season hay. It was formerly owned by his wife Lucille’s parents. What struck me most about this house is how normal it looks. Modern straw bale homes emphasize the straw, with rounded corners, unique plasters, and often slightly wavy or uneven walls. My first thought was that the inside of the Martin/Monhart house had drywall over top of the bale walls, they were straight and flat and covered with wallpaper. This could have been my grandparents’ house. Jake had me stand right beside the wall and look down its length; from this vantage point a slight wave could be seen where the wall meets the ceiling- what I mistook for drywall was the bale wall itself. Only in the windows could the depth of the walls be seen, showing the tremendous insulation value of nearly two feet of baled hay. Lucille told me the story of the day a tornado roared through the town, tearing up trees, blowing out windows and sounding like a freight train running through the middle of town. As soon as the tornado had passed Lucille went to check on her parents only a block away from the path of destruction. “We found them playing cards,” she recounted, “they had no idea a tornado had passed, they didn´t believe us at first.” Bales are a great insulator against sound as well as temperature. Standing there surrounded by the old furniture, I could imagine the couple peacefully playing cards, blissfully unaware of the destruction that came so close.

The Martin/Monhart house was one of the later homes to be built in the original wave of Nebraska bale building. One of the first was an 1886 school house, which suffered an ignominious fate. Unfenced and unstuccoed, by 1902 it was reported that

The sandhills of Nebraska

the building had been eaten by cows. The invention of straw and hay bale homes in the sandhills of Nebraska was almost inevitable because of a combination of factors. The first was the invention of the horse powered hay press (hay baler) around the 1870’s-1880’s, which for the first time created the raw material for bale homes. Secondly, the traditional Nebraska sod house didn´t work all that well in the sandhills. The turf on the uplands tended to fall apart easily and the soil in the lowlands was too valuable for growing crops to use it as a building material, if any alternative could be found. Nebraska resourcefulness and technological progress met in the sandhills and the bale house was born.

The Haslow House

After leaving Arthur, I Visited the Haslow house, which took me through the heart of the sandhills.

I pull over to the side of the road. It’s perfectly still, but stormclouds form great anvils on the horizon. In the sandhills, especially around sunset, the land and the sky somehow seem equally real and equally fanciful, as though reality lives somewhere in between. The sandhills have a surprisingly dramatic, otherworldly beauty to them.

Rich Haslow is a rancher who runs the operations of the Nebraska Boys Ranch. In some ways he´s pretty traditional, for instance he´s one of the few farmers around who still stores his hay in stacks instead of bales.

Interior of the Haslow House

Someone had a baling machine here at least once though, in 1913. That was the year Jason Snow built a house here out of rushes baled from a shallow lake that still lies behind the house, and which to this day remains filled with a thick cover of tall rushes (it is named Rush Lake). This baling up of whatever was at hand to use as a building material was typical. Many of the original bale homes were made from wild prairie grasses dominated by little bluestem, harvested from the hills late in the season and carted down to the stationary horse-powered hay press to be made into bales. Other houses were built from various straws such as rye straw, or from rushes as the Haslow house was. The term stationary hay press is a bit deceiving, as they tended to move from farm to farm, hired out for a few days at a time to bale hay for sale, storage, or building.

The Haslow house was built in the traditional “Nebraska style,” or load bearing form. This simply means that the weight of the roof sits directly on the straw wall with no wood framing. Post and beam homes with straw in-fill are more common than load bearing ones in modern straw bale construction (though both are common), but the original bale buildings were made to use as little wood as possible. Just as in sod houses, no wood was needed to support the roof in bale buildings.

A doorway through the straw bale wall shows its width

Nebraska style buildings have stood the test of time – the Haslow house still wears its original coat of 1913 stucco, which is in good shape other than a little cracking and settling. The hay used in these houses has little or no rot after nearly 100 years. Standing in his 100-year-old bale home, Rich Haslow related a story to that effect. “They tore down one of these old bale houses near Lakeside, they spread the hay out on the ground and the cows ate it!” The only problem in his own house was that the hay can trigger Rich´s allergies, which is a problem that is not usually seen in newer bale buildings. Modern bale buildings are nearly always built with straw, which is less likely to have issues with rot, or allergies – perhaps that´s the difference, or maybe there are just more gaps in the wall 100 years later. Despite the allergies Rich said “we have no complaints. It´s a good little house.”

 

 

 

The traditional Nebraska Soddy

Before I left he took me to see a nearby sod house. Rich and Rhonda Halsow started their marriage in this house, while his parents were living in the bale house. “We think we might be the only couple of our generation that started off our marriage in a sod house,” Rhonda said. Fitting, perhaps that they followed it up with a bale home. A thunderstorm was crossing the horizon as I drove off.

Steve Sauer’s Tiny appartment

After reading an article originally published in the Seattle Times, I really wanted to see Steve Sauer’s tiny appartment while I was in Seattle. The article about the 182 square foot appartment includes some quotes of Sauer

What I really wanted was one place with exactly what I needed and wanted. Quality is more important than quantity for me, and extra space only a problem

I wanted to compress my home to squirt me back out to the community

Steve Sauer in his tiny kitchen

I wanted to see the appartment because tiny appartments make that much more sense ecologically than tiny homes. And Sauer seemed interesting, if perhaps a bit of a true believer. What I found was more nuanced.

Sauer showed me around his appartment, which involved walking a mere few steps. The use of space was clever, the appartment is designed in layers with the bed above the living space, and a sitting area by the window that just accomodates a tall person standing, with a low TV lounge area under it. Some of the design was Japanese inspired, where real-estate values require people to live in very small spaces. Also, Steve Sauer has a masters degree in whole systems design, and took the design on as a personal challenge to do more with less.
Steve Sauer's tiny appartmentAfter the ‘tour’ we sat down to talk. Sauer believes everything he’s quoted as saying in the media, but there’s another much more conflicted side to him. He described the idea of the tiny appartment as “fraught with peril.” He loves the simplicity, and he wanted to show what was possible, but he’s having trouble with the idea of actually living there. For one thing there’s sporting goods, he says. And tools. He has a storage space next door that is full of overflow from the tiny appartment. And he has a one bedroom condo nearby. He’s mostly been living there while he worked on the miniature dwelling.

Now before anyone is tempted to claim moral superiority, Sauer’s combined living space is still smaller than the majority of Americans’ and he feels the need to downsize – he just isn’t sure how yet. The appartment feels a bit too small, the condo a bit too big. At some point he’ll let go of one of them. In the meantime his appartment exemplifies the way space can be used, and the lesson is to figure out exactly what space you need; to be realistic. I’ve often thought that the tiny house movement was, above all, a challenge to the rest of us to use less, but not neccessarily a challenge to be taken literally. My visit to the tiny appartment confirmed both those things.

efficient use of space and light in a bathroom The storage area next door

An interview with Jay Shafer

A few years ago I did an interview I did with Jay Shafer, one of the leaders of the tiny house movement. This meeting was a last minute decision while I was travelling down the west coast, so I arrived at his little home on short notice and unprepared. It was only later when I did my research that I realized he’s relatively famous and has even been on Oprah. So it took some accidental gumption to show up on a whim. When I got there he was in his boxers surfing YouTube videos, having forgotten I was coming. So I guess it all came out even, and the interview was great. Here’s part of it.

Jay Shafer:

Jay Shafer in front of his tiny house

“It seems like the tiny house movement started surprisingly because I was living in my tiny house, other people were living in their tiny houses, and suddenly it was called a movement. I guess it was an evolution, but I just didn’t notice it coming. But its caught on, this idea of living with less. Probably not just because people are starting to feel a little guilty about the 18 tonnes of greenhouse gases that their Mcmansions are pumping into the atmosphere each year, but also because I think people are getting tired of vacuuming, and dusting, and all those things that go along with a big house.

It’s kind of a hard sell in America where bigger means better. At least that´s what the perception is. No matter how little nutrition there is in food, we love our giant burgers and other stuff. As long as it’s cheap and big we like it. Less square footage is actually more expensive per square foot. When you break it down square footage is the cheapest thing you can add on to a house. So in this country we love big houses because they’re relatively cheap per square foot. That said, my house is one of the most expensive houses in this area, but overall it´s still the cheapest because it’s only 100 square feet.
I think people in this country are starting to catch on finally. The housing industry has pushed the bigger house thing ever since the 70’s and 80’s, when their profits started to level off. They realized they couldn’t sell more houses, so they just started selling more house. Just bigger houses. And started pushing for codes that would prohibit smaller houses. And the banks started following suit by giving loans only for larger houses. And at this point it seems like there’s probably need for somewhat of a backlash. Until we get back to normal, or something sustainable. So it seems like people are catching on that bigger is not necessarily better, in fact it can be a lot worse.

A small natural gas heater designed for boats heats the home

As far as the type of design that’s used, I call it subtractive design. And just like everything else I’ve thought was really smart that I ever came up with, it turns out its already been coined, this term. It’s used in computer design, and machine design – in every kind of design except its been largely forgotten in American housing design. But it’s just a matter of paring things down to what is actually functioning in a design. So my laptop computer is small and it’s really functional, and that’s really appreciated. In machine design subtractive design’s value becomes really evident because the more parts you have, the more likely something is to break down. And in housing the same remains true it’s just that people have forgotten that the more space you have, it may be cheaper per square foot, to buy, but it’s going to be cheaper overall to buy a smaller house and besides that there’s the expense of just having to vacuum, dust, heat every room, cool every room, and of course there’s the environmental impact too. The average American house puts out 18 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year into the environment, and that’s not to mention the amount of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources that it’s consuming to do that. So it’s huge.

I wanted to build a very high quality house, something that was really nice, and by building small I was able to do exactly what I wanted with no budget. I figured how much money could I actually put into 100 square feet? I might as well just go all the way. I discovered that you actually can put a lot of money into 100 square feet. But I’m really glad I did, because I live in a house that meets my needs and I just love everything about it.
I should clarify this right now – I think larger houses are great when they’re built for many people, when space is being used well and its designed to really meet needs without exceeding needs, it usually winds up being really attractive to me. But when there’s just a lot of extra space tacked on for the sake of being spacious, I find that ugly. I think it looks pretentious actually. I wanted to live in a place that expressed my ethics as aesthetics. I wanted to express simplicity.

The sleeping space is in the loft

Voluntary simplicity is a term I wasn’t familiar with until I built my house, but I think it was exactly what I was doing. I think it’s what a lot of people are doing whether they know it or not. It’s just part of nature. Everything in nature seems to operate on voluntary simplicity it just pares itself down to its essence and functions very well that way. It seems like the human ego is the only thing that stands outside of that realm, from what I can see.”

Straw Bale Building checklist

Recently my friends asked me for advice on building a small straw bale building (a garage with a living space above). They asked me how it will compare, timewise, to conventional framing. The answer: it will definitely take longer. They will save money on materials (some) but it will only be worth it if they really want the extra insulation value. They do, and they want to try building with bales as a test run for a future house. Also they want to use post and beam anyway, which means they need some kind of secondary wall system – for this reason, and aesthetic reasons, bales and timber frame go well together. I wanted to give them a good idea of what they were getting into, so I compiled a step-by-step checklist of exactly what you need to do to build an infill straw bale wall.

Here it is:

Bale building checklist

Before bales (after foundation and basic structure)

  •  Roof must be finished. Really finished!
  •  Bale curbs installed
  •  Top plate (never OSB – plywood OK)
  •  Framing for doors and windows
  •  Pre-hang mesh if / where needed
  • plan air sealing details which may need to go in before bales
  •  Electrical?
  •  Bracing for windows or guides for bales if needed
  • Scaffold? Set up before baling if possible. Plan tarping accordingly
  •  Tarping (tarping that rolls up can be nice). Attach to soffit area, not facia
  •  Get bales

Bale install

  • Check bales for moisture as you go
  • Pre-fill voids where corner of bales meet
  • Notch / install bales. Check plumb as you go. Tie into posts as needed (frequent)
  • Cut curves / angles for windows – can be done before or after bale placement
  • Dipping bales? Need to pre-mix clay slip and mask finished wood
  • Straighten walls / weed whack if not dipped
  • Stuff all voids / check stuffing everywhere

Plaster Prep

  • Cover all wood that will be plastered with typar / tyvek,
  • Lath over wood & typar, hanging over bale transition by 1.5 to 2″
  • Lath over air sealing materials
  • Tenax mesh / stitching (recommended if not dipping bales)
  • Flashing completed everywhere plaster will meet
  • Plaster stops?

Plastering

  • Process site clay?
  • All materials and mixer on hand
  • chopped straw (save from windows)
  • Make wheat paste where needed
  • Mix
  • Apply scratch coat inside and out
  • wait for drying / curing (1-3 weeks earth / 3 weeks lime / 1 day cement-lime)
  • Finish coat in and out
  • De-masking / clean up / detailing
  • Caulk joints
  • Crack filling (minimal with earth / more with other plasters)
  • Paint

How to make clay slip

A heavy duty drill and a barrel can be used to process soil into clay slip

Earth plasters are wonderful because you can use soil that was dug from your foundation, or a truck can deliver a load of clay soil that was dug from another construction site. But anyone who has a pile of clay soil sitting on their jobsite knows that it’s hard to process. It can be rock hard, or incredibly sticky globs, and often contains stones that need to be sieved out. Here’s how to process clay into slip for use in earth plasters.

You need a very good drill that can withstand running for hours, and a barrel with one end open. Fill the barrel about 1/3 full of water, measure exactly how much you are using because you need to keep the slip consistent if you’re going to use it in earth plaster recipes. make a setup to hold the drill in place (some drills or paddle mixers have attachment points for this, others you may need to use All Round steel strapping (found in plumbing section of stores) or some other ingenious method.

paddle mixer for clay slip

Kraft Tools DC303 (modified)

You’ll also need a very good paddle mixing attachment, I used the Kraft Tools DC303, a 24″ mixer with three propeller blades to keep the slip moving even as it gets thick. Since the blades are removable from the shaft, which is somewhat too short for barrel mixing, I bought a separate metal rod which I cut to length and used that as the shaft. Alternately you could cut the barrel down to match the shaft length. I know someone else who uses a boat propeller attached to a shaft on his drill to stir the slip – which was the best setup I’ve seen to date.

Start the mixer spinning in the water before you start adding clay to the barrel, once you have a vortex start adding the clay. Keep careful track of how much clay you are adding relative to the water. I find about 2 clay: 1 water is quite manageable, and that is about the minimum you want for your recipes. If you can get more (up to 3 clay : 1 water is possible) it will give you more flexibility in your recipes, since thin clay slip will make for wet plaster.

Once all the clay is in you’ll probably want to leave it spinning for at least an hour, and sometime in the middle you should stir up the bottom, either by moving the mixer around, or pull it out for a minute and stir it up with a shovel.

When the slip is well mixed, pour it through a screen (diamond lath works for rough plasters, you’ll want something finer for finish plasters) into a holding tub or trough. You can easily make one with a new tarp and some bales. You’ll want to process a couple of barrels of slip before you start mixing plaster, or you’ll get behind on slip. And that’s it – keep it well covered when you’re not using it to keep rain, frogs, leaves etc. out of the slip. Happy mudding!