First Coat of Plaster is on!

This weekend was a good weekend for getting the plaster on. Still not as warm as I’d like, but at least the freezing temperatures have gone!

We managed to get a first coat over just half of the buiding. The back sides are not covered yet, but I can do them in the week, so it will be covered by next weekend. So far it looks like this:

The first coat is on. You can see it's a little patchy in places, but the second coat should close this up and make it more uniform.

You can see it’s a little patchy in places, but the second coat should close this up and make it more uniform.

The bulk of the plaster went on well, though in areas where I was using hessian to patch up gaps and bridge areas with wood, it’s a little loose and thin. I’ve draped some geotextile off the roof to shade the building this week and I’m spraying it to avoid it drying out, but there are areas where it has dried more than others.

I need to get some closer photos of areas, but some of the plaster has dried a little flaky and crumbly in some small areas which might need redoing. They tend to be in the areas where the straw is not packed so well, like the joins of the bales, or an area we stuffed with straw.

It's best to work the first coat in with your hands.

It’s best to work the first coat in with your hands.

It’s when I encounter slight weaknesses like this that I kick myself for not going on more training courses closer to the build date. I’m going to see how things go on a second coat, and make more effort to work the plaster into the bales on the first coat.

An update

I literally don’t know where to begin on an update in what has happened in the last two weeks. Safe to say that at the moment, the walls are raised and the roof is on, albeit in a temporary state. Here is a photo I’ve got of the walls and the trusses on the roof ¬†before we put the boards on.

Front Elevation of Building

I’ve learnt so much over the last week, I’ll be trying to detail the mistakes I’ve made (too many to count) and the things I learnt were hugely important in other blog posts so people can learn from them!

All the volunteers I had over the straw wall raising weekend were heroes, and the walls were finished in two days. Once that was done, it was down to myself, my parents and my girlfriend to get the roof trusses put together and lifted onto the building.

The trusses after bring lifted into place.

One of the things which I was well aware of, but is now reality, is all the niggly little bits that need work to get the finishing touches on the building. The next two weeks waiting for the weather to warm up so I can plaster the outside will be taken up by cutting windowsills, stuffing loose straw into gaps and various other small jobs. If I get things finished by June, I’ll be a very fortunate (and happy) man.

Bales are Delivered!

After a fortunate turn of events with the weather forecast combined with the brainwave of getting the bales delivered on Friday instead of Saturday, I now have 100 bales stacked in the back garden, ready for the arrival of the bulk of the volunteers tomorrow!

Picking up the bales Friday turned out to be a good call, not least because of the problems that cropped up picking them up – When I spoke to my friend who had stored them for me she did say that some of them may “burst” when moved. Not being quite sure what she meant, I picked up some extra twine and we made our way to the bales. Sure enough, some of the string had broken over the winter and we had to retie as many as we could salvage. This slowed delivery down by about an hour, so I’m glad we got it done today, giving us a full day tomorrow to tighten the bales and then raise the walls.

I hadn’t considered, or read about bales breaking before, but then I don’t think I knew anyone who had stored them over the winter, so it is something that is quite interesting to note. According to the delivery guy, the breaking of the twine is down to rats, which explained the droppings we found amongst the bales.

Anyway, onto tomorrow! I’ll be trying to tweet progress on my twitter account, so if you are reading this and it’s 30th March 2013 or earlier, check out www.twitter.com/alunking and you might see a few photos as the day wears on!

The week before the bales: preparation madness

I don’t know where to begin to start to describe the last two weeks or so building up to this coming weekend. It has been an absolute stress fest. About four months ago, I bought the straw planning to raise the walls in Easter and now it is here, it’s a sudden rush of activity as I try and get everything in order for the weekend of building.

Firstly, the weather has been really awful this Easter, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’ve been quite lucky here as no snow has fallen, but about 100 miles north, there are people unable to leave their houses because they are snowed in! Crazy times. The forecasts have been highly erratic and I’ve been worrying that I would have to cancel the straw bale raising and delay the build until the weather settles which brings with it many more concerns.

Being a teacher, I’ve got the two weeks off before Easter, and I am endlessly grateful for that, because I’m spending every day this week getting things ready. It’s not the pace of building I am built for if I’m honest and I’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief once I can sit back with a roof on the building and take my time with the rest of the construction. Perhaps this is the real benefit of building frames when building with straw – the more I think about it, the more I would find the less stressful option of having a roof over my building before the straw arrives!

Here you can see the start of the wall plate going down.

Here you can see the start of the wall plate going down. The building really takes shape with this outlining it!

So this week so far, I’ve got the wall plates measured and cut for both under and over the straw bales. Next up is installing the uprights and frames for the doors and windows, then building the trusses, and I’ll be ready for the straw! I’d have liked to have done this sooner, but cold and wet weather has forced my hand slightly and it’s a case of leaving it to the last minute! I’ll try and take as many photos as I can and post here, if only to document the build for people looking for more information.

The Straw has landed!

I was worried about the day arriving, given the bad weather, but I’m happy to report that the straw bales arrived from the supplier in dry conditions and are now under a sturdy roof for the winter!

I was meeting the supplier at his farm, and drove to my friends farm, who had kindly agreed to storing them for the colder months. The drive from Abergavenny to Brecon was fairly short, but we had already delayed the delivery from last Tuesday because of the bad weather, so we rescheduled for Friday, with cloudy (but dry!) sky as our forecast.

I drove from Abergavenny saying small prayers that there would be no suprise rain. Some of the clouds were pretty dark and imposing, but the Met Office didn’t let me down, and no rain fell! By the time we arrived in the farm in Brecon, the sun was out, and we loaded the bales into the barn quickly and easily.

It’s worth pointing out that straw bale takes up a lot more space than you would think – I calculated the space beforehand based on an average bale size, but in reality it was a lot more than that!

Anyway, its good to have it all safe and in my possession, and my mind can now turn it’s attention to finishing the tyre ramming, plastering the walls and doing the roof ūüôā I’ve got a busy winter planning these things! Sorry I don’t have any photos of the straw, I should have taken some, but I forgot my bloomin’ camera!

Straw Bale Supplier Confirmed!

Good news can sometimes be hard to come by, but I’ve had one great day today!

I got a call from my straw supplier last week, who said with rising costs of straw and hay, he was unable to store my straw over the winter for me. While I found this unfortunate, I understand that it isn’t easy for the people dealing in this industry – it isn’t exactly run for eco-builders! So over the last week, I set about trying to sort out where I can store 100 bales of straw until Easter.

Fortunately, my parents have a spare garage, and with a bit of maths, we worked out the straw would fit like a glove into the space. Not ideal, as they are planning on selling the land the garage lies on, so I had it as a backup. Today, I managed to call a friend who owns a farm, and she was able to fit my straw into her barn for the winter!

I’m taking the delivery of the straw next Tuesday, so I’ll post some photos then. It’s both equally scary and exciting, as I’m doing this on my own, no advice to call by, just instinct and knowledge from past courses. The straw will be stored until a good week of weather around Easter time, and then I’ll move it to the site, and finish the building with a solid roof on it before any rain comes in! Exiting times.

Other good news – I’ve got the Bristol half marathon on the 30th September, and my training is going better than I could have planned! I’m hoping for a sub 1hr 40min time, so we shall see how it goes!

Sourcing Straw Suppliers

As the end of the summer approaches, it’s time for me to start thinking about a supplier for the straw. While I am not planning to build until March (the best time for plastering is early in the year, for the weather to help the setting process), I need to think about sourcing straw now, as it is harvested.

While building with straw is growing in popularity, it still is something which you need to take some time finding suppliers with. Straw is used primarily for horses, and so the best way to find straw bales is by finding people who supply straw for this.

I called a few places, and most people are fairly¬†accommodating¬†for straw, so it’s not something that people should have a problem. Once you explain what you need, as long as the straw hasn’t been baled yet, you will be able to get what you want.

When building, straw needs to be as tightly packed by the baling machine as possible, so requesting this is important. It also needs to be dry, and then you have to be able to store it over the winter in this condition. This is why getting your supplier sorted early is important.

So far, I have contacted three places, in differing distances. One in Shrewsbury, one in Hereford and one in Abergavenny. They have all been considerate for the use, and I’ve even had an offer to come and watch the straw being baled, which sounds fun! Once I have done the calculations and spoken further with suppliers, I hope to have somewhere organised. I’ll be sure to report on how I get along, as this is an area I’m making up as I go along, and the more guidance I can supply for future builders, the better ūüôā

Straw Bale Thoughts

Though I’ve got plenty to learn with Straw, I can use this post to collate any thoughts on Straw Bale as a building material and any dos/don’ts that I can think of.

Shaping Bales

As long as it’s done properly, there is no reason why you can’t build yourself a circular straw bale building. Shaping bales is reasonably easy with the right tools, and we even resorted to chainsaws to cut notches into the bales. I found as a buliding material, it can be quite forgiving with regards to accuracy (though thats not an excuse to be inaccurate!) so playing around with the shape and edges is good fun. Just make sure they are tied well, and packed in so as not to be too loose in a wall. You have to remember that over time, they may settle, so a tightly packed bale is of the upmost importance.

 

Covering bales

To withstand the weather, you would assume that bales need to be plastered as soon as they are put on. I was surprised to find that this is not the case. While is not necessarily advisable to leave bales uncovered, as long as there is a decent roof covering, they should be able to withstand weather, given time to dry out. Water does not soak in, unless it ends up at the top of the bale, with gravity pulling it in. The photo below (taken in March) shows a bale wall that was built in September, and was still in reasonably good shape despite going through the winter. There had been development of some patches of damp, especially above the door frame, where the fold of plastic had caught water and allowed the straw to sit in it. Also, the lack of an overhanging roof meant that the walls were not as covered as they should have been, ideally.

 

Chicken Wire

When plastering the walls on the straw bale course, we used chicken wire to cover the bales, and assist in the plastering. There was a split with regards to if this was a good or a bad thing. You can see in the photo below the chicken wire.

For the first course, it certainly made plastering easier, and probably would result in the use of less plaster. However, I thought that it might result in the plaster not tying itself into the bales quite as well, and though it is more effort to get that first course of plaster into the straw, the knowledge that it is mixed directly into a bale, and not with chicken wire would be better for me. In areas where the chicken wire strayed from the bale, I felt like the plaster might end up leaving a hollow part of wall, which could result in potential long term weakness. (This was addressed by pinning the chicken wire into the bales at these points, but I remain unconvinced!)

Plastering – Clay vs Lime

to be continued.

Straw Bale Building Course

I was hoping to post this sooner, but I’ve been incredibly busy!! Things are getting mad now that the summer is approaching, but I can’t complain, I enjoy having plenty to do!

Anyway, with a fortunate windfall from my mortgage last month, I managed to book a place on a straw bale building course last weekend. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had thought that I have a chance of building with the bales late this year, so I wanted to ensure that I was capable of building with the bales, rather than just going off what I had read in books!

We all met in Redfield on Friday night, 11 people on the course in total. Everyone was friendly, from various backgrounds and very easy going. Everyone had a unique reason for being there, and it was refreshing to hear peoples ideas and understand how much variety you can get from building with such a simple material. We settled into the night with a brilliant meal cooked up by the people at Redfields and a straw bale DVD and presentation from our weekend tutor, Chug Tugby.

I should tell you about our accommodation. Redfield is a community in North Buckinghamshire which is a large mansion situated on 17 acres of beautiful grounds. If you are not familiar with the concept of a community, the idea is that families of people all live together, sharing the work of the land, and living communally. There is more information on their website Р http://www.redfieldcommunity.org.uk/. We stayed in a building off from the mansion, and it was a lovely building with a large social area, giving us plenty of space to get to know each other on the course.

On the Saturday, we all headed out to a nearby farm where we would be building our work. We spent the morning learning about tying bales, and cutting them to shape to lay into a wall. With the short tutorial out of the way, we quickly set about constructing the side of a barn wall. For the weekend, we worked on a straw bale infill wall, though straw can be used in load-bearing structures too. By the end of the day, we had completed the wall, and also some of the team had repaired a damp patch of a previously completed wall too.

Come Sunday, we were raring to go, and had a short lime tutorial. With gloves and aprons on, we set about covering the back of the barn with lime plaster. The first coat of plaster is often the hardest to put on, but with 11 of us working hard, we were more than able to get the entire back wall done in a matter of hours. Not too mean a task when you see the size of the barn wall!

All in all, I enjoyed the weekend. I felt like I became a lot more confident handling the bales and I don’t feel so scared of buying and building with straw bales anymore! I’m looking forward to taking delivery of them!! One of the biggest surprises of the weekend was discovering quite how weather-proof straw bale can be. I always had the impression that on building with bales, you would need to get the bales up, and the walls plastered as soon as possible, before any rain hit. While this is true if you have the bales uncovered, with a good roof, you don’t need to rush it quite as much!

As you will see in the photos, the barn we were building had a number of straw bale walls built before our arrival – these walls were put up in September 2011 and were (generally) still OK!* To back up this evidence of hardiness, we were shown around Redfield whilst staying there, and they had a number of straw bale buildings, which were mostly unflustered, and had been standing for up to 12 years! It taught me that as long as the roof I am planning has a decent overhang, there is absolutely no rush in getting the plaster sorted (though I will build and plaster it within a week hopefully!). Certainly means the building work will be a lot less stressful with regards to weather preparation!

If you are interested in booking yourself on a Straw Bale building course or something related, visit http://www.lowimpact.org