Which Way to Orient My Bales

Most bale buildings tend to have the bales laid flat (no strings showing on the face of the wall). This standard was established early on, when the very first tests were performed on bare unplastered bales. In these tests, bales laid flat offered less resistance to compression than bales laid on-edge (with strings showing on both sides of the wall), but did not experience the same kind of ultimate failure that on-edge bales demonstrated.

This early bias has never really gone away, even though we now understand that the bales themselves will never be subjected to the kinds of loads imposed in these tests because the plaster skins will be handling this structural role. Bales on-edge are used in post and beam settings, but it is still considered experimental to use them on-edge for load-bearing structures, despite the fact that some of the historical bale buildings in Nebraska were built with bales on-edge.

Thermal testing of bales in both orientations has shown that there is no significant difference in the R-value. Flat bales have a slightly lower per-inch R-value, but more inches; on-edge bales have the inverse.

Advantages to bales laid flat: Disadvantages to bales laid flat:

• a wider wall can be more stable • loss of floor space due to greater width

• easier to notch around framework • need more bales for same wall height

• more depth for carving window openings and niches • use of more lumber for framing

• testing data supports this orientation • more compression and settling

• easier to plaster if mesh is not being used • need to trim the folded side prior to plastering ^

You Don't Have to Be Conventional!

Load-bearing bale walls are unique creatures. You can certainly create walls that are perfectly level, square, and plumb, but don't forget that this isn't an absolute necessity. Conventional walls need to be perfectly square and level or else all the prefab finishes applied to them (drywall, plywood, brick, etc.) won't work. But your plastered bale walls are their own beasts, and a wavy top plate that would give a conventional framer a heart attack can be intentionally beautiful in a bale wall!

Most of the strategies you'll use to create sound load-bearing plans do not translate into higher costs or undue construction complexity. A well-planned, well-built, load-bearing building is cost-effective and relatively easy to construct. However,if you find yourself resisting a load-bearing design, perhaps post and beam will better suit your needs.

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