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Straw Bale and Adobe Home: Part 4 of Fantasy Homes Series

Updated on July 5, 2012

My Fantasy Home Number Four

Alternative homes, energy efficient homes, low-cost homes, unique and individual houses all fit the description of straw-bale/adobe construction.  I'm still dreaming about my Fantasy Home Series and writing about ways to build on a budget.  This kind of house is built with steel rebar reinforced hay bales and covered with an adobe (water, earth, lime) surface that is smoothed on over the hay.  When you are finished the walls look like stucco.  But the fantasy part comes in when you design your home with circle windows, indentations, niches, arches and curved walls! There are some beautiful examples out there and if you do a search for "straw bale houses" you will find them.  Below are some to whet your appetite.

Ndebele house in South Africa   made similar to straw-bale and adobe construction
Ndebele house in South Africa made similar to straw-bale and adobe construction
A little charmer! could be adapted to look like my favorite hobbit home
A little charmer! could be adapted to look like my favorite hobbit home
A larger, more complicated house with enclosed porches and entry way
A larger, more complicated house with enclosed porches and entry way
Detail of construction
Detail of construction
A book on straw bale homes
A book on straw bale homes
A larger straw-bale construction
A larger straw-bale construction
Detail of construction
Detail of construction

Another inexpensive alternative way to live!

If you are going to build a house anytime soon, or if you are just dreaming like me, you will want to look at all the alternative energy and green building materials there are these days. You will want to consider the climate where you live and all the specific location requirements like sun and shade, trees, other buildings nearby, slope of the land, etc. and then you will want to build a straw bale and adobe house! Because one can be designed to fit in wherever you are living and to fit your reduced budget. If you have many friends and a lot of energy, this would be the perfect choice for you.

Straw bale and adobe construction is especially wonderful for desert locations where you need to insulate against the hot sun. But it is also a good choice for semi-rainy areas where the extra thick walls combined with a radiant floor for heat will keep you nice and cozy during those long winter days. I don’t know about snow country, probably you would need a high peeked roof with a big old attic to keep the cold out and the snow from drifting on top.

From a design perspective, with this kind of house you can be very creative and make your home as unique as you are. The thing I like best about straw bale and adobe construction is that you can curve walls, leave off the sharp corners and add built-in niches and arches.

The stucco and adobe compounds used to cover the walls are basically earth combined with lime and textured to make the surfaces, inside and out, as creatively distinct as you may want. Since I am a painter, and could do them myself, faux marble and rock or murals of landscapes painted on interior walls would be my choices. In South Africa the Ndebele people paint elaborate ornamental borders on their exterior walls which are constructed much like these straw bale houses. These brilliant designs look so much like some Pueblo and Navajo southwest designs, it is uncanny!

So if I could, I would make the most elaborate and beautiful walls with paintings and faux finishes and textures and niches to hold icons and candles and maybe a little fireplace in every room. With a big fireplace in the middle separating the kitchen/dining area from the living room and keeping everyone nice and warm.

Passive solar energy involves using the natural heat of the sun to keep your house warm through windows and surfaces that absorb the heat. You can balance that warmth with less windows on the east and west to keep the house from getting too hot in summer. This means larger windows and doors on the south facing wall and windows on the north placed up higher on the wall. Artists will want that great north light - but its fine to have that light come in from above. Skylights are also a wonderful choice and can be tinted to filter the hot sun.

In my article on Earth Homes I included info about “hobbit-style” homes that are partially built into a hill or were “bermed“ with sod to provide a natural kind of insulation. I was wondering whether the front, unsodded, part of the house which would ideally face south could be made with straw bale construction, and I find that it has already been done, very successfully.

Some good reasons to build with straw bales:

  • Rain isn’t a problem, if it doesn’t rain at the wrong time - while you are constructing. So you should build during the dry season, allowing time for the walls to dry after being coated with adobe.
  • Soundproofing is a big plus - straw bale buildings are incredible insulators from sound and also a thick wall along the road, if your house is close to a high traffic area, will create a useful buffer.
  • Longlasting - Houses exist in Australia that were made using straw bales over a 100 years ago and they have held up very well, many still occupied. The walls can easily be kept in repair for very low cost.
  • Efficient - Although I found some large structures including community centers in my research, I found that smaller houses are more often built because of the engineering for load-bearing walls and efforts to keep the house easy to heat. By building small you will be lessening your energy footprint on the earth.
  • The cost of building a straw bale house is one of the lowest - people have built some wonderful ones for $80,000 (three bedrooms, two baths) and less. So that is one of the best things about them. Also, it is not too difficult to add on when necessary.

When you’re choosing a low-cost house alternative please remember: “one third of the world’s population live in modern, resource-intensive homes that consume one fourth of the world’s wood harvest, two fifths of its material and energy usage, and one sixth of all fresh water usage.” (quoted from David Eisenberg in “Sustainability and the Building Codes” article)

I found a wonderful site called that will interest you - with an account of all the ins and outs of building a straw bale house in the desert near Tucson. Carolyn Roberts, who wrote a book about her experience, took two years to build her very charming house with some help from friends and carpenters. She gives you so much information on her website it is fantastic - and she is very personable and readable. I loved her account of a lightning strike on a huge cactus next to her house.  Her book is also entitled House of Straw and the excerpts on her website will convince you to read it.  Take a look at her website where there are many very beautiful and informative photographs which I have not included here, purposely, so you will go see for yourself the awesome effort she has made and her generous sharing of her own experience.


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