Homesteading Today
A Modern Barn Raising

Our venture into homesteading today included a modern version of old-fashioned barn raising. With the help of a couple great neighbors, we got our straw bale building up and ready to roof in four days.

This page is not just a chronicle of our straw bale house walls going up, it is a “thank you” to our neighbors, Dan and Anneke. They not only got us moved, but devoted their time and energy to helping make our "Barn Raising" possible. They are the kind of people that put the “good” in good neighbor.

Getting Ready

About a week before we retired and were ready for DIY building, our ranch supply store delivered about 180 straw bales to our land.  

Bales from different machines can vary in size, number of strings, and the length of the straw strands. Our bales averaged about 4 feet long x 15 inches high x 24 inches wide.

The bales we bought had long strands, which made a variety of building chores easier than a chopped straw bale. The market here at that time was $6.50 per bale. Thus, our walls, without rebar pinning or bucks, cost us $1,170 delivered. The bucks and rebar pinning added a couple hundred dollars more.

Make Short Bales with Bale Needles and Twine

To accommodate openings less than 4 feet, we had to retie bales into shorter lengths using baling twine and bale needles.

Retying with long strand bales was a dream compared to the chopped straw bales our neighbors used. A long strand bale holds its shape, while a short strand or chopped straw bale tends to crumble when retying. This makes them hard to retie for short spaces.

To retie our bales, we measured our new bale length and pushed a bale needle through the bale near one of the existing strings. We pulled a loop of new baling string up through the bale and tied off in both directions, creating two new shorter bales.

Once a new string was tied next to all three original strings and the two new sections were tight, the old string was cut and put aside for the next use.

We made the bale needles from a couple pieces of galvanized fence end strapping that were salvaged from a neighbor’s project. Our needles were about two feet long, excluding the handle.

We bent the handle in a bench vise and used a grinder to cut a retaining notch and make a point on the needle. Cost = Zero. It is possible to purchase “professional” bale needles from a variety of resources, but why? A part of our homesteading today experience is foraging and building by hand.

Homesteading Today: Barn Raising - Day One

House building day arrived. We were rested and ready to go. June is hot here in southern Arizona and our neighbors have their own ranch to tend, so our barn raising usually started about 6 a.m. and stopped about 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

Our first day was something of a shake down. We got our bale splitting system running well and the door and window bucks installed and the first course of bales on the stem wall. It felt good to get started. After Dan and Anneke left, we did some clean-up and got ready for day two.

Homesteading Today: Barn Raising - Day Two

On the second day, the wall grew to four rows. We began pinning the wall at the fourth row. Five foot lengths of 3/8 inch rebar were cut and driven through the bales every two linear feet to stabilize the wall. We made sure to drive the rebar entirely into the top bale to avoid tripping or kneeling on an exposed end.

With the bottom course of bales firmly pressed unto pins sticking out of the stem wall and the additional rebar pins every additional third course, we had a strong wall.

At the corners, we impaled each corner bale on a piece of 3/8 inch all-thread three feet long. The first section was anchored in the stem wall. We joined each length of all-thread with a long nut to give us an adjustable mechanical tie from stem wall to bond beam on each corner. This helped secure and level the bond beam. We were careful not to cut any bale strings as we drove the rebar pins.

There are many methods of stabilizing straw bale walls. Interior pins, exterior pins of bamboo tied through the bales, strapping and on and on. If done well, all will do the job, we suspect. However, we found that exterior pinning caused cracking in the plaster on the Annex wall, so chose interior pinning for our home. One of the beauties of homesteading today is the exploration of the many different approaches to DIY building.

Filling the Spaces

Inevitably, there will be spaces between bales and bucks. Flakes from making short bales and loose straw from handling the bales should supply sufficient fill for the holes.

The idea is to fill the spaces with straw as firmly as possible for both insulation and the ability to receive and hold plaster. Stuffing the holes by hand is primitive, but effective.

Working the Wall

An average three-string straw bale weighs about 75 lbs or 30 kg. Two-string bales are lighter, but the wall is thinner and there is a reduced insulating factor. We used three-string bales because there seemed to be no two-string bales available in our locale. Either bale will give you an energy efficient home.

We were able to place bales on the wall with some ease while standing on the ground until the wall reached the fourth row. Then we staged the bales to a scaffold using the frontloader bucket on the tractor and placed them on the wall from the elevated platform.

For the final row, we stood on the wall and hooked the bale by hand directly to the wall. This process was a bit precarious in terms of footing, but effective.  Once the bond beams and final pinning were done, the wall didn’t move at all and working the trusses in the next phase of building was a breeze.

For more information on bales, their weight and dimensions, we recommend The Last Straw, This quarterly journal has a wide variety of information for the DIY builder.

Homesteading Today: Barn Raising - Day Three

By the end of the third day, we had the end in sight. We had originally intended to build a wall only six courses high. But when we were through with the sixth course, we discovered that the door and window spaces had left us enough material for a seventh course.

We were really tired and our bodies said, "Hey, enough already." But in retrospect, we're both happy we pushed the wall up one more level.

Our interior ceilings are about 9 feet now and, although our house is pretty small, the fact that the interior space is open and the ceilings are high makes it feel much more spacious.

Homesteading Today: Barn Raising - Day Four

The fourth day was comparatively easy. We had few bales to cut and tie as we were above the doors and windows. We had our system down pat by now. The wall was finished with one last row of bales and then putting on the bond beams. Each 8 foot section of bond beam was attached to the next with carriage bolts and shimmed level.

We drilled holes and drove our second round of rebar through the bond beams and down three courses of bales to further strengthen the walls. The protruding all-thread on the corners was fastened with a large wood washer and a steel 1 1/2 inch washer to lock the corners into place.

The following day, we began the roof. But that’s another story!

Homesteading Today: The Payoff

Here in the Arizona desert at our elevation, it can reach 103 degrees or more outside. Our R-43+ walls keep our inside temperature about 74 degrees with the help of a small evaporative cooler that runs on low setting and often is not turned on until late afternoon.

During a recent winter, we had a couple days in single digits, the lowest being 2 degrees above zero. We heat with a small wall-mounted propane heater. On the coldest night, when we went to bed the interior of our house was 70 degrees. We turned the heater off at 8:30, when we went to bed, and when I got up at 5:00 a.m., it was 62 degrees in the house.

We have been living in our straw bale home since 2009 and we appreciate it more with each passing year.

A straw bale home is perfect for our foray in Homesteading Today!!

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