Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Strawbale Building Workshop

This weekend, I had the most amazing time at a strawbale building workshop, taught by a local eco-architect, Sigi Koko of Down to Earth Designs. She's an amazing, vibrant person, as well as an excellent teacher, and I'm so pleased to have had the chance to work with her. (Thanks Jenny for the heads up!)

The project was a tasting room for a new local winery in Frederick County, Maryland, Black Ankle Vineyards. Owners Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Herron are strongly influenced by biodynamic philosophy and in keeping with that, they produced as much of the building materials on site as possible. Most of the wood was milled from their own land, the rye straw was all grown and harvested on site, and they've even worked closely with a papercrete company to produce countertops made from grape vines, seeds, and skins from last year's harvest. It's very cool. They'll also be using some wormy maple from the grounds for tabletops. It should be absolutely beautiful when finished, and a delightful place for Jim and I to go. Since the owners have 5 children, their plans are to make the gardens kid-friendly.

This was a post and beam project with straw infill, meaning that the straw itself primarily functions as an insulator, and what an amazing insulator it is with R-42 value! The roof will be insulated with an expanding soy foam, and the concrete floors will be finished with a soy colorant. The building will also include a cob-covered masonry stove, some living roof area, as well as cob walls and benches in the outdoor rooms. (Note: these links aren't necessarily the actual products being used.)

My team and I worked on an outside corner wall with a window (below) that flows into an internal wall and window, which means we had loads of specialty cuts to make in our bales. Here we are standing on our strawbale scaffold against our internal wall just before we laid the last course under the beam. Eventually, strawbales will be laid on the cut side on top of this final course, all the way up the cathedral wall where it will meet the ceiling insulation.

The weekend was amazing, and fun, and filled with all kinds of challenging weather, including a rain and hail storm which soaked me to the skin in the frantic run to tarp the outside walls, demonstrating the clear value to post and beam construction in our area of the country. If this had been a load-bearing or "Nebraska style" strawbale, there would have been no roof in place!

After work was done, we were all treated to a tour of the winery and an informal tasting back in the tasting room to toast all our effort. What an amazing experience! Now, I'll have all kinds of experiential knowledge when I finally convince Jim to build our own strawbale on 100 acres somewhere.


Christy said...

After you convince Jim let me know how you did it so I can get to work on convincing Mark LOL.

Danielle said...


At one point, I was talking with Sigi, saying that she had to be doing this in 10 years because that's how long it would take me to convince my husband. She told me to let him talk to her, that she once even convinced a physicist. I said, he is a physicist.

At any rate, I'll do you one better and invite you to help us build it. Convincing will follow. ;)

Madeline said...

I'll come help! We wanted to build one 13 years ago and were told we had too much humidity here. Maybe there is more evidence to the contrary now? How cool to have been part of that.

linda said...

Strawbales and wine...
What a great weekend you must have had.
Grrr, i'm so jealous!!!
Good news is that with more wineries up your way, maybe we'll be able to head that way more often.
Neil will go almost anywhere if there is wine involved.
You should talk with Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Herron, the winery owners to find out what grapes they're growing... and if they would be interested in you growing some grapes for them on that 'top of the hill above the pasture area' you have.
Maryland wineries have a shortage of Maryland grapes to work with, and Maryland has fairly recently hired a viticulturist (Joseph Fiola, Ph.D.) to help establish more Maryland vineyards.
Good news... at least for you, he lives up your way... in Keedysville.
He is in some way connected with the local extension office up there, so you should be able to meet up with him at an *agricultural something*, and fyi, he also specializes in 'small fruit'... so he could help with an orchard!
---hope to see you soon, linda

ps... Even though i have very limited time, i still want to comment about water savings... so in the next few days i may post a comment back at a previous post. :)

Christy said...

Cool. I'll help build it, that'll be fun.

Danielle said...

Madeline, Sigi specializes in strawbale building in moist climates, though I don't know if she's done anything as far south as you all are. That was one of the biggest reasons I really wanted to go: to find out all the tricks and tips of dealing with moisture.

There are some basic construction tips to keep in mind, the idea being to keep all liquid water out and to allow all vapor water to dissipate.

1) Raise the bails above the splash line on concrete footers.

2) Large overhangs to keep roof water away from building and drip edges on all sills.

3) Never put metal inside the bales. Old school strawbale used rebar to pin the bales; we used bamboo. With metal, the temperature differentials will cause condensation on the inside of the bale, which is a no no. Essentially, you want to be sure that any water that might get into the bales does so on the outside where you'll see it before it becomes a huge problem. So this means no pipes through bale walls either.

4) Redundant protection under windows and eves to direct the water away from the center of the bale and down the outside where, again, you'll see it.

5) No vapor barrier, which is common code in many places. Both plasters—inside and out—need to be breathable to prevent moisture build up in the bales.

Probably more info than you wanted, but hey, someone might find it interesting.


Tell me about it! It was just too cool, and I can't wait to go there for a tasting. Maybe you guys will come meet us there one fine early September afternoon.

I know they're producing Chardonnay, Syrah, Malbec, and several others, including one Austrian grape that is up and coming. Sarah said that for a brief moment they had the most of that grape planted in the U.S. All of their wines are produced on site, unlike some other Maryland vineyards.

The two we tasted that day were a Syrah, that I thought was quite good, and a white blend they named "Bedlam," which was nicely crisp. They don't double ferment any of their whites.

Jenny said...

Hey Madeline,
I was going to comment on the vast amount of knowledge that has been amassed on SB since 13 years ago, but Danielle summed it up pretty well! Even in our dry climate here in NM, when we built our SB 5 years ago we used all these techniques, even though our building codes required rebar pinning and vapor barriers around the wood supports. And they wanted us to use stucco instead of earthen plaster, which we refused to do and had to jump through many hoops to avoid.

I believe SB is a great building method for any climate if it is done right.

nita said...

Wow, I loved this post. Thanks for all the info. in the post and in the comments. Our house is old and retrofitting is hard. If we ever have to build a new house, it will probably be strawbale. I use strawbales for a make-shift food storage area in the barn. The insulating factor can't be beat.
Thanks again!

Madeline said...

oops! my response went to Jenny instead of here, I think. I just wanted to thank you both for all of the great info. I am seriously wanting to revisit our strawbale dream when/if we get to build our green home. We just have to wait to see where we want to have our final farm days.

Hayden said...

thanks for the detail in both post and comments. I'm wondering how she got past the building code for vapor barriers, or if it doesn't apply there?

to me, vapor barriers are a deal killer. If I have to use them, I don't want straw bale.

Danielle said...

Hayden, there are solid independent studies she was able to site for the county, and she's been successful each time, I believe. Even with the post and beam structure, there's still a fair amount of education that goes on regarding permits, and it's good to begin the process early.