Building A Straw Bale House: Clearing the Site

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I have a progress update from the field of my dad’s straw bale house. He visited my sister and her family in New Mexico in mid November and started clearing the land at the site. If you are new to the green.mnp Building A Straw Bale House series, check out the first entry to read about the design and software my dad has developed for his and my mom’s dream green retirement home.

Here is what he had to say:

I recently took a six day trip to Albuquerque. My agenda was to clear the site and check in with my builder, Cadmon Whitty, and Anissa Hogeland, the architect who is turning my conceptual design into construction drawings.

I stayed with my daughter and son-in-law and got a chance to catch up with them and my grandson, Joshua, 4, and see my new granddaughter, Skyler, 8 months!

When Anissa first laid out the house on a topo drawing of the site (a little $1400 survey cost) she suggested that floor joists over a crawl space might be cheaper than a slab on grade, due to the slope of the site and the amount of fill we would need to bring in for the slab. I was reluctant at first about losing the thermal mass in the slab, but I talked it over with Cadmon and he said that a two inch layer of lightweight concrete over the wooden subfloor works well for holding the radiant heating tubing. He did a top-of-the-head cost estimate that indicated this approach would be a bit cheaper than the slab and fill. When I ran this new approach through my energy model I was surprised to find that it didn’t increase the heading and cooling swings appreciably. This is because there is still a lot of thermal mass in the interior walls – cinder block with every other cavity filled with cement or earth. Once you have “enough” thermal mass, adding more has progressively less effect. I’m now glad about the crawl space, as it will make plumbing and other systems much more accessible. This is an environmental improvement too – less cement with its embedded CO2 emissions.

Clearing the site began with renting a chainsaw and chipper, and deciding just where the house will sit on the site. After marking out a few rough corner locations I began cutting away. It’s sad to cut down healthy trees, but there’s no way around it within the house footprint.

After the first day at the site I came home with a terrible stiff neck and shoulders. I guess that was from a day of chainsawing after not doing any for several months. Maybe stress or sleeping wrong had a part in it too. It stayed with me for the whole trip. Nights were the worst – just turning over in bed was a slow, painful process. One of the unexpected joys of building a house at age 66.

With breaks for lunch and some minor troubles with the chipper it took two days of chainsawing and two days of chipping. At the end I ran out of time and gas in the chipper with just a small part of the last brush pile left. There are now several stacks of firewood and two piles of chips which will provide some landscaping mulch. From my Coast Guard days I’ve named the piles after two small conical islands outside the entrance to the harbor at Saint John’s, Newfoundland, which are affectionately know by sailors as Mae West.
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There will be more clearing at the south edge of the lot, but already the view is quite something. There is a broad valley of rolling hills, fields and forest, with several mountain ranges receding into the distance. I’m so glad I reoriented the house design to make the most of the view!

Another high point was the hospitality shown by the neighbor on one side, who helped me considerably with the chipping. His help and tool box saved my bacon when the chipper jammed one time. I also met the neighbors on the other side – a nice young couple who I’m looking forward to knowing better.

I also talked with a couple of mortgage brokers about construction financing. There will be applications and financials to fill out for that. I’d like to be the general contractor for the job, as that could save some money. But I also know that all the scheduling and phone calls to subs are not my strangth – I’m a poor manager. “General contractor” involves several kinds of insurance, several kinds of risks, and the managing of the subs and the scheduling of the construction process. I’m hoping to work out an allocation of the different elements between Cadmon and myself that will make the most sense.

That’s it for now. Coming up will be the detailed final design, building permits, and negotiations with banks and the builder. We’re planning to start construction in early April.

Jack Partridge, 11/24/07

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7 thoughts on “Building A Straw Bale House: Clearing the Site

  1. jessie and jack, you guys got some love today on offbeathomes.com you should blogroll them jess. er… or i will

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