Common Mistakes

With a building style as new as straw bale, there are plenty of people out there making plenty of mistakes. Fortunately, they are sharing them with others, and we can all learn from one another's experiences.

This list of common mistakes is not meant to scare you or to make anybody feel bad who has made any of these mistakes. We've made most of them ourselves! Because they've been repeated often enough, we've listed them here for your edification and covered them in more detail elsewhere.

Considered passive solar. If we could change one rule in all the building codes, it would be that all building designs must account for the sun's interaction with the building. It is the ultimate source of energy on the planet, after all, and ignoring it wastes valuable resources. Almost every building can have a passive solar strategy that is cost neutral and effective.

Sited the house in a micro climate. Paying attention to existing site features, and in particular how the proposed building will alter them, results in buildings that are more comfortable and energy efficient.

Detailed the plans properly. Be sure that your plans adequately take into account all the requirements of a good bale building, including compression strategies, top plates, drip sills and flashings, adequate overhangs, and plaster stops. If you're not sure, hire somebody to review the plans. Simple mistakes caught at this stage are easy to fix; they're much worse once the building is underway.

Thought for ourselves. You will be given untold amounts of advice while planning and building (only pregnant mothers get more!). Especially when dealing with professionals, it is easy to be overwhelmed (or even bullied) into changing your mind against your better judgment. Don't be belligerent; do base your decisions on good research, but don't buckle if you believe you are right.

Insulated under and around a slab foundation. Many people think that insulating under a slab is a waste of time and money. Really, it's a waste of your heating energy. Common wisdom says the ground stays warm under the slab, so you won't lose much heat. Laws of physics say that your warm slab will try to heat the significantly cooler earth below it.When a slab wrestles the entire planet, the slab loses! Isolate that thermal mass for best performance.

Sealed air leaks caused by plaster shrinkage. The more intersections that exist between plaster and other building materials, the more air leaks there will be when the plaster inevitably shrinks away from these places as it cures. Even if you've properly installed vapor barriers behind such intersections, and especially if you haven't, make sure you properly caulk these areas.

Installed hydronic heat tubes in a slab. Whether the slab is concrete, earth, or any other material, it is a mistake not to directly heat such a thermal mass in the home. An insulated and heated floor will make a home so much more comfortable that it will be possible to lower the thermostat!

Protected against moisture due to rising damp. Whether it is rising through your foundation wall into your bales, through your slab floor into your home, or from the ground in a crawl space, rising damp is a powerful and destructive force. Be sure to stop it with appropriate vapor barriers.

Built appropriate curbs/toe-ups on the foundation. Placing bales directly on the foundation is an invitation to moisture damage that is easily avoided by stepping them up on a curb. The first time a bucket of cleaning water spills, not to mention small floods, you'll be glad for your curbs.

Done more research. The more alternative the building you are attempting to build, the more research needs to be done.There are hundreds of options to be considered. Don't just jump at the first thing that sounds good; find out how it has worked for others.

Had pressurized water onsite during plastering. Plastering uses a lot of water, quickly. Standing around and waiting for it to slowly arrive is frustrating and sometimes costly. It's so much easier to clean up properly with the force from a pressure pump.

Paid for consulting. Vast pools of knowledge are available to you in all facets of straw bale and natural building. But don't expect everybody to give their knowledge for free. Pay for books, journals, and consulting time (hint: it doesn't always have to be cash!).These will save you large amounts of time and money.

Matched the carpentry to the bales. For example, if you want rounded doorways, you'll have to cut properly beveled curb rails. If you want flared window openings, build the bucks accordingly. If you want flat window sills, build them with flat wood.

Had electricity onsite. We've worked on purist building sites where hand tools are the rule. That's okay, but expect things to take a lot longer.

Had better tarping strategies. Tarping the walls is often treated like an afterthought. It should be done according to a well-planned system. Taking the time to build a frame (which can be reused later in the project) will ensure dry walls and allow work even in the rain.

Formed a recess in the slab. Most exterior doors are pre-hung these days, and the sill is proud of the floor unless a space is cast into the slab.

Had the right tools for the job. Sometimes renting, borrowing, or buying a tool will be much more efficient than doing things the long, slow way with an inadequate tool.

Bought four ends of scaffolding. Most homes take long enough to build that renting scaffolding costs more than owning it. Buy four ends at the beginning and rent enough to wrap the house during the plastering phase.

Tied the vapor barriers into walls. The junction between the ceiling and wall is a prime spot for air leakage.A vapor barrier detailed into your top plate design effectively solves the problem without a lot of fussy work after the fact.

Sourced the right size of poly twine. Poly baling twine comes in many thicknesses. Some is so thick it's impossible to thread a needle or tie a knot. Some is so thin it can't be reefed or tied tightly, without breaking.

Managed the volunteers better. If you can't manage a group of volunteers, don't invite them. This means ensuring there are enough tools and safety equipment, enough knowledge, enough direction, enough food and drink.

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