• Building With Awareness Blog

Installing Electrical Wiring In A Straw Bale House

The straw bales are now in place, and it is time to complete the rough-in of the electrical wiring for the home featured in Building With Awareness. In order to meet code requirements, an electrician is hired for this procedure. As I mentioned in a previous article, some of the wiring for the house had been placed within the adobe walls while the bricks were being laid. For the straw bale walls, a chainsaw is used to cut one-and-a-half-inch deep channels into the bales. The electrical wire is pushed into these notches and run to the electrical outlets and switches in each room. The wire can also be pushed into the seams between the bales. The end of a blunt wooden stake can be used to push the wire into the notches or the bale seams. The wire used here is called UF cable, which stands for Underground Feeder. This is a very durable and moisture-resistant wire that is designed to be buried underground. When a wire must pass from the inside to the outside of a bale wall, it is fastened with tape to a long needle or rod made from one- quarter-inch-diameter metal. It is pushed through the bale, the tape removed, and the needle pulled out, leaving only the wire in place. When wire is being run through ceilings and frame walls—not adobe or straw bale—Romex cable can be used. Romex cable is somewhat more flexible than UF cable, and is therefore easier to work with. The…

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How To Choose Window Locations For A Solar Home

window installation straw bale home

Now we are ready to install the windows. This in one step in the building process that is very satisfying from a visual standpoint. Once the windows are in place, the various rooms—and the house in general—begin to have the feeling of a finished space. The purpose of windows is to allow light and fresh air to enter the home, to allow proper ventilation, and to keep either very hot or very cold air—not to mention rain or snow—from getting inside the house in summer or winter. Windows give one a feeling of protection from the outside world while still permitting a connection to it. Small window panes—set into the larger window space by horizontal and vertical strips of wood called “muntins”—create a soft divide to the view outdoors. It is this solid/transparent window unit that helps to define the space of the room. This is why walls made entirely of glass can actually give one an uneasy feeling. There isn’t enough boundary or separation between the indoor space and the outdoor space, so the indoor/outdoor divide becomes ambiguous and vague. When choosing windows, one should think of how they will function in all weather conditions. Most of this equation can be worked out in the early design stages of the home, however it is worth reconsidering at this stage of construction. Can the windows be left open in the rain, both for ventilation and for allowing the sounds of the storm to be heard inside the room? Would an…

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Building Straw Bale Walls

Once the framing is complete, it is now time to stack the straw bales. For this home, an all-volunteer workshop was held for the placing of the bales. This served two purposes. Number one, it saved us time and money in that around 80% of the bales were placed over one weekend. In addition, those that volunteered their time received free instruction on how to work with straw bales. Everyone wins. I placed a few notices around town to announce the straw bale workshop. Around 25 enthusiastic individuals showed up. There is such an energy and feeling of community when people from your local community show up to help. The magnet is the straw bale walls as this materials captures the imagination. Unlike wood frame construction, people are drawn to the do-it-yourself concept of working with these giant blocks made from wheat stems. It is a waste material that is being given a second life as insulation and the solid matter of the wall. The thickness of the walls is appealing and the construction process is easy to understand within a couple of hours of hands-on work. The vertical seems of the bales are staggered just like bricks. Notches are cut wherever the bales must fit around one of the 4×4″ posts. This is accomplished with an electric chain saw. The chain saws are powered by the photovoltaic panels on the roof of the small workshop that was discussed in previous articles. When necessary, the bales can be split in…

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A Picture of a Straw Bale Home In Spring

This is a springtime view of my straw bale house that is featured in the “Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home” DVD and book. Click the image for a larger view. While riding my recumbent bicycle home from the office the other day, I was caught by the reflections in my neighbor’s flooded field. They recently planted a citrus orchard and garden and were irrigating late in the day. I grabbed my camera to capture the soft glow of a typical New Mexico sunset. When living in a straw bale home, Spring is the time to remove the insulation panels from the skylights (to prevent heat loss in winter) and to turn off the pilot light of the backup radiant-floor heating system (despite some nights that still dip into the 30’s, the home does not need backup heat at this time of year). The rainwater cistern is 80% full due to recent spring rains. This will supply enough non-potable water until the summer monsoon season begins in a few months. The photovoltaic electrical system generates more electricity in the Spring and Fall due to the fixed angle of the PV panels to the sun. It is also time to put the window screens back up as they are removed every Fall to maximize the amount of heat entering the windows from the low-angled winter sun. The warm earthen tones of the home’s walls come from the mud plaster finish. The small workshop to the right is made…

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Product Review: “Gossamer Wind” Energy-Efficient Ceiling Fan For A Green Home

The Gossamer Wind Ceiling Fan is EnergyStar rated and incorporates an advanced blade design that greatly improves energy efficiency. I always stress that the design of a green home must start with the passive-solar-design elements before even thinking about the mechanical systems. If you focus on the overall efficiency of the entire building, you can then reduce or eliminate the electrical/mechanical systems—such as heating and cooling.  My straw bale home is designed to stay comfortable on hot summer days without the need for a conventional air conditioner. This is accomplished by careful window placement to prevent solar gain in the summer, well-insulated straw bale walls, R-55 cellulose insulation in the ceilings, and the use of interior thermal mass walls.  When the overall building is designed properly, you may find that you only need to reduce the interior air temperature by a few degrees—instead of twenty or more degrees. A ceiling fan may then be all that is needed to make a room feel comfortable. In the case of my straw bale house, a conventional air conditioning system would not only be unnecessary, it would also greatly increase the cost of the off-the-grid photovoltaic system that supplies all of the electricity for the home. The Concept of the Ceiling Fan Ceiling fans have made a comeback due to their energy efficiency. They were invented in the 1860’s to 1870’s and were the standard method of making buildings more comfortable for decades.  By the mid 1950’s, electric air conditioners began to appear…

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The Pros and Cons of Straw Bale Wall Construction In Green Building

Following are some pros and cons of building a straw bale house. Like any building material, it is always best to evaluate your needs and your goals before committing to a particular material. Green building offers a wide range of options in achieving energy efficiency. When appropriate for your project, straw bale construction has many benefits. Advantages of straw bale construction 1. Straw bales are made from a waste product. Once the edible part of the grain has been harvested (such as wheat or rice), the stalks often become a disposal problem for farmers. By bailing the straw, a new life is given to the material. The farmer makes some money by selling the bales and the homebuilder gains an excellent insulation and building material. 2. Homes insulated with straw bale can have insulation values of R-30 to R-35 or more. The thicker the bale, the better the R-value. 3. Straw bale walls are at least eighteen inches thick. This adds aesthetic value to the home as thick wall are expensive to achieve with conventional construction. The thickness of the wall helps to reflect sunlight throughout the room. 4. Due to the thickness of straw bale walls, every window can have a window seat or shelf. This becomes both an aesthetic and practical design element.

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