Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Three Little Pigs

We all know the story of the Three Little Pigs.  Each had their own opinion of the best material to use to build their house.  We also know how the story ends.  What the author left out is the benefits and faults of each type of building material.  You may wonder what this story has to do with our plans for our homestead.  As you will see it has everything to do with it.

Straw Bale Construction

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the idea of building a home made of straw.  It has gained acceptance as a green resource in many parts of the country.  Straw has low embodied energy, it is after all a waste that would typically be left to rot.  When used as infill for the walls it has a high insulation value.  I have heard the argument of straw walls leading to infestations of mice and insects and peoples fear that they would be living in a tinderbox just waiting to go up in flames.  Why these are valid fears I have come to learn they are unjustified.  Straw may be used to build a home in two different ways.  One may use straw as the load bearing structure or simply use it to fill in between the load bearing structure.  Each has its benefits.  After the straw is stacked it is stuccoed.  As long as it has not been exposed to moisture and the stucco is properly applied you have no worries of mice, mold, or even fire.  There have been numerous studies performed showing that it is actually very difficult for a fire to sustain itself in a straw bale wall. 

The benefits of using straw include the fact that you are using a resource that otherwise would be a waste product, it has a high insulation value,  t is found in nearly all parts of the country and would be easy to get, and it would be reasonably inexpensive. 

Some of the cons to using straw as a building material include the low level of public acceptance.  After all, some day you may want to sell your home.  Possible problems obtaining financing and insurance, and it is pretty darn heavy!  That is the sticking point to me.  While I can live with the fact that we would have to find like minded folks if we ever though about selling and we do not plan on any financing as we will be paying as we go, I can not get around the fact that I have had a spinal fusion and I do not know if I would be able to lift, carry, and stack that much straw. 

Stick Built Construction

Everyone is familiar with stick built construction.  More than likely the home you are in now was built using this method.  It has been the primary building method for many years and there are codes in place for building with wood.  Financing is not a problem and there wouldn't be any problems with obtaining home owners insurance.  The problem with stick built homes are numerous.  There is a tremendous amount of waste if you are building a site built home.  While it is possible to eliminate some of the waste with proper planning about the most efficient method of stick building is with modular homes.  They are built in a climate controlled factory which eliminates the possibility for mold which can be a problem with site built homes and they have become very proficient at building with little waste.  Some of these factories are very impressive and look much like what one would think a car assembly line would look like.  Another problem with stick built homes is thermal bridging.  While you can make the walls thicker and add more insulation you still have the studs every 16-24 inches.  It is relatively easy to frame a house.  Most of the work can be done by two or three people and it is not a problem obtaining plans or building materials as there is a big box lumber store in nearly every mid-sized town.  Another problem with stick built homes is the fact that there is low thermal mass.  We plan on using passive solar techniques to assist in heating our home and I do not think we could get the level of heat storage I am wanting.

Concrete Construction

While I hate the idea of using concrete as a building material, it makes me think of Soviet era human warehouses, it is a very efficient method of building.  I have been doing tons of research on various methods of using concrete and I will share a few here.  One method of using concrete is to build forms and pour solid concrete walls.  Another methods which intrigues me is using an insulated concrete form which is basically a hollow block of foam which is stacked and then concrete is poured in the center.  The third method I have researched is dry stacked concrete block.  This is simply taking concrete cinder blocks, mortaring the first row and then stacking the subsequent blocks on top.  Every five or six rows would need another layer of mortar to ensure the wall remains level.  After the wall is up one places rebar in every fourth cavity and fills it with concrete.  After the interior is filled with the concrete you use a surface bonding concrete to cover the inside and outside surfaces of the block walls.  These walls are said to be just as strong if not stronger than mortared block walls.  I think it would be more realistic for me to be able to build using this method.  It does not take a great amount of skill to set the blocks.  The wife and kids could help with the process, not something they could likely do if we used straw bale or even stick built construction.  This would take care of my need for high thermal storage potential and work great with a good passive solar design.

We have yet to decide which construction method we will use we have started playing around with some floor plans.  We will probably end up with a hybrid home using some of all of the mentioned construction techniques.  Here are some samples of the floor plans we have come up with so far.

Most of the plans I have drawn are roughly 32' x 60'.  We do not want a large house but lets face it, we need enough space to live.  This plan has the master bedroom on the west side of the house.  The great room and two bedrooms on the south side would have plenty of windows to let in the winter sun to help heat the house.

Here is the same plan with some furniture in it so you can get an idea of the layout.  The bottom of the picture is to the south to take advantage of the sun.  The rooms on the north side of the house will have fewer windows and be super insulated.

This is the same plan in 3D form.  I found a website that lets you make floor plans in 2D and 3D.  It lets you add flooring, wall coverings, furniture, the works.  It is free and does not even require registration to play around on it.  the website is homestyler.com.  Check it out it is alot of fun.

We are getting excited about this adventure the closer we get to actually starting it.  I hope you find it interesting following along.  It is sure to entertain as we will tell it like it is.  Until next time Peace!

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