The 57 acres that comprise Cedar Ridge Farm are located in the beautiful rolling hills of South Central Kentucky. My wife, our four children, and I are on a homesteading adventure as we work toward increased self-sufficiency. We grow much of our own food and enjoy being in touch with the agrarian roots of our lives.

One of the major projects we have undertaken is the building of our own home. The house we're building has three major distinguishing features: 1. we're building it without incurring any debt; 2. it is a timber frame structure; and 3. the exterior walls will be plastered straw bales. We live debt and mortgage free, and building our house with that approach makes perfect sense. Large timbers in a home possess a beauty and project a sense of strength, stability, and warmth that we want in our home. Straw bale walls provide insulation and make ecological sense. This blog is a record of our home-building project.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Slip straw in more interior walls

We had some friends over on the first day of the week for a straw stuffing party. The previous week I bought two sheets of 3/4” plywood for another two sets of forms. I also mixed up about 60 gallons of clay slip in preparation.

We started on the wall between the living room and master bedroom next to the two sections the boys and I did earlier. We also worked on the wall beneath the stairway, the other interior wall in the master bedroom, and a couple of bathroom walls. By the end of the day, we’d completed most of the walls that we’d started.

On the next day, the boys and I were able to finish all of the walls that we’d started during the work party. Then on Tuesday afternoon, our whole family worked on one wall upstairs. Then, yesterday afternoon, we worked on another wall upstairs. We ought to be able to complete the rest of the walls in that bedroom and storage area (on the east end of the house) in another afternoon’s worth of work. I’ll share photos of our progress upstairs later.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Window sills and curving bale corners

I’ve considered different options for the window sills in the house. One of the earlier ideas was to set stones in concrete – done right, this makes a very nice window sill/seat. Later, I decided to make them with wood, and I’ve been pondering upon how to build them.

On the first day of this week, I planed some poplar boards with the intention of using them for the window sills. Dad and I tried out the tongue and groove router bits I recently purchased on a couple of the boards. My idea was to put in a framework using 2x2s that the poplar boards would be nailed in to. As we routed out a couple tongues and grooves, I continued thinking about my method. As a result, I changed my plan for what to do.

I decided to use some 3/4” plywood as a sort of sub-sill and install finished boards later, probably using the same material as what I will use on the floor in the house. The plywood will give me a solid foundation to nail the finish boards to, and it actually will install more easily than the previous method I had in mind.

Wanting to try it out, I decided to start in the master bedroom. The first task was to shape the corners of the bales on the sides and above the window. I used my electric chain saw to knock off the corner of the bales on both sides and to cut 3/4” out 050of the top of the bales below the window (to set the plywood at the right height).

Once I had the sides curved and the bales above shaped (I describe the basic process below), I cut plywood to install for the sill. I attached it below the window to some thin strips of wood I nailed to the framing below the window, setting the top of the plywood even with the top of the 2x4 at the bottom of the window. The finished boards will will butt up against the window on top of the 2x4 framing the bottom of the window opening. I also set some 2x2s flush with the exterior surface of the bales below the sill to provide extra support. 006It turned out well. The photo of the window also shows one end of the opening for the sliding glass door which I also shaped.

Today, I worked on the living room windows. Looking into the corner, you can see how they looked before I started. Although we tried to stack them straight, he ends of the bales were uneven. It’s quite easy to remove straw from the ends of the bales in order to make them more even.

The first step in shaping the bales around the windows was to cut the corners off. My electric chainsaw worked well for this. 013I found that it wasn’t necessary to try to round the corners.

The next step was to cut a length of poultry netting/chicken wire to fit the height of the window. I stapled one edge into the 2x4 framing on the side of the window. Then, I stuffed straw into the gaps between bales and added straw where the 014bale ends needed built out a bit. The chicken wire serves to hold the straw against the bales and to form the desired curve.

I pulled the chicken wire around the curve and anchored it to the bale wall with a short stick behind one of the hard wood sapling pins in the wall. I worked from bottom to top, pulling the wire tight, anchoring it, 016stuffing straw where needed, pulling the wire tight, adding another anchor, etc. 017When I reached the top, the corner was rounded, and the wire was tight.

The final step was to staple the wire securely to the pin in the wall. With it stapled, I removed the anchor sticks and was ready for the other side.

When we stacked the bales, we laid a 2x6 across the window opening and secured it to the framework above so it wouldn’t sag. Then, the next course of bales was added on top of the 2x6. I needed to not only curve this edge above the windows, but I also needed to provide a 019surface for the plaster to adhere to later.

Again, I knocked the corner of the bales off with the chainsaw and then attached chicken wire to the top 2x4 of the window framing. I put loose straw on the wire and stuffed it into some voids. Then, I pulled it up tight to the bales above the window, pounding it into the curve in order to shape it how I wanted it. A 2x4 of the bale shelf is exposed one bale course above the window, and I stapled the wire to this. I completed this process in sections across the window.

With both of the double sets of windows in the living room shaped, it was time to install the plywood for the window sill. While I was cutting off the corners earlier, I also cut the height of the bales below the window a little. The first step in doing that was to cut the strings of the bales (to keep the strings from getting tangled in the saw). Since the bales were already securely in the wall, 031they weren’t going to go anywhere or fall apart with their strings cut.

I nailed a strip under the windows to attach that edge to and then laid the pieces of plywood I cut in place. With them nailed under the window, I attached some vertical pieces flush with the bale surface under the plywood. I used some pieces of oak that was close to 2”x2” which I had.

The plywood extends past the inside plane of the bales because I want the plaster to come up under it rather than in front of it. The plaster will actually help provide additional support for the sill. It should be solid since it’s attached front and back and rests on top of the straw bales.