Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Straw Bale Coop (Part Seven): Raising the Roof!

Many thanks to Granddad and Fred, who donated a few hours on Saturday to place the roof on the straw bale coop!

Leftover metal roofing from Haven, cut to size & slid into place.

A view from under the roof. You can see the large overhang, which will help keep the bales dry.

Chicken wire is stapled into the top plate (the two-by-four that rests on top of the bales) and will be pinned into place before mudding.

This is the southern wall of the coop, which Jewel and I plastered while listening to the Steeler game on Sunday afternoon.

Today I was able to plaster the lower two courses of bales on the north and east sides. We are running low on chopped straw (an element of the plaster), and I wanted to "chicken-proof" the wall in case we aren't able to finish the upper plastering anytime soon. (From the way the girls will tear into flakes of straw in their bedding, I was afraid to leave unplastered bales within beak range.)

So today, I'm feeling thankful to my family, who has been so supportive during this project. We are at a good place to stop with the holiday weekend approaching.

God's blessings to you and your family, at Thanksgiving and always!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Plaster Pals...

At three and a half, getting to help run the cement mixer is a pretty exciting job...
Tuba Boy with Uncle T. (T practices law during the week, but for two years came every weekend to help us with Haven. He very kindly offered to come mix plaster for my coop.)

Jewel applies slip to the wall before plastering.

Rafters for the roof of the coop.

Jewel was a tremendous help with the plaster on the inside wall of the coop. At six and a half years old, she kept saying, "I'm good at this!" Which is how I often feel working with earth plaster. I never expected that I could be good at plastering, or that I would enjoy it so much!

Straw Bale Coop (Part Five): Pinning, cont.

When last we spoke, I had talked about pinning in terms of pinning the bales together vertically as you stack them in courses.

Once you have your bales stacked, it's very tempting to think that it's time to plaster the bales. However, at this point it is very important to "tie" your bales into the top and bottom of whatever structure you have built. This is one more way to add strength to your wall.

(For those readers who do not know me well, I have to reiterate at this point that I am not an expert in straw bale building. I lean on the experience of those who have gone before me as well as personal building experience. My husband and I have built two homes and a garage out of bales. If there is something I emphasize, it is usually because we have made a mistake and learned the hard way.)

Let's talk for a minute about holes.

Holes are not your friend. They result when bales are not exactly rectangular; when you have two slightly curved corners come together. You need to fill them, and you need to fill them well.

This is what a hole looks like. (I know, sounds pretty obvious.)

This is that same wall, a minute later, after I stuffed loose straw into the hole. I can't overstate how important it is to fill holes. If you don't fill them with straw, you'll be filling them later with handful after handful of valuable earth plaster. (If you're not planning to plaster your wall, perhaps opting to cover your wall with T-111 or a similar product, holes in your wall will greatly reduce the energy efficiency and warmth of your wall.)

To tie the bottom of our wall into our foundation, we used two-foot tall chicken wire. Pretty straightforward, we cut the wire to the length of your wall. We've used two methods in past construction for attaching the wire to the bale wall. First, you could "sew" the wire on using baling twine and a bale needle. Second, you could create a number of long pins to hold the wire securely in place. For this project, we chose to use pins.

At this point, it was important to assemble a large number of pins. (The ones in this photo were made out of coat hangers, snipped with pliers. Myhrman and MacDonald refer to these as "Robert or Roberta pins, to emphasize their size and status relative to "bobby pins", pg.92.)

Though it's hard to see in the photo, this is the same length of wall, with the chicken wire securely attached. A wall that is ready to plaster will have the chicken wire attached tightly; wire with gaps will be difficult to plaster.

When I attached the chicken wire at the bottom and at the framing around the door, I used poultry staples. (A staple gun can also be used. I find that the poulty staples are easy to use and provide a stronger hold. This is a photo of the poultry staple before it is pounded in.)

For my purposes, I was ready at this point to start plastering the inside of the coop. I still needed to "tie in" the top bale to the top plate of the roof, but that wasn't on yet.

Next post: earth plaster!

Straw Bale Coop (Part Six): Earth Plaster!

(This will be my somewhat-technical post on earth plaster. If you are a friend or relative looking for muddy pictures of the kids, you want the next post!)

Earth plaster is by far my favorite part of working with straw bale construction. Although I am a pretty good gopher in terms of stacking, pinning, sewing, etc., earth plaster is where my talent comes through. (Which is pretty funny, since I had no idea I would be any good at it!)

For those of you familiar with Terra Dei (www.lutherlyn.com), it is plastered with two layers of cement stucco, followed by two layers of Thoro stucco. It worked well, but it was very heavy to trowel onto the bales. For Haven Homestead, we tried our hand at mixing our own earth plaster. I'll run through our basic recipe and technique for mixing earth plaster here at the homestead.

Without at doubt, this was one of our best investments:

(If you were working on a small project, such as a shed or a coop, you could probably get away with renting a small cement mixer. However, it only made sense for us to purchase our own when we were building Haven.)

Fred learned our basic recipe for earth plaster from a workshop led by Sasha Rabin at Yestermorrow in Vermont. As with all good recipes, we did a little tweaking to find the perfect mixture.

Haven Homestead Earth Plaster
We use a 1:1:1 mixture of brown clay, mason sand, and chopped straw. Using 5 gallon buckets, we usually place two buckets of clay and two buckets of sand into the cement mixer. Once those are combined, we start adding water in small amounts. (I don't measure water when I mix. Today Fred did, and he estimates that he uses 1/2 of a 5-gallon bucket in this recipe.)
Once the water is in and the mixture is really soupy, start adding two buckets of chopped straw, a few handfuls at a time. Once all the straw is added, it will be heavy enough that it will start to peel off the side of the mixer in sheets and thump into the bottom as it turns. That's how I know it's done. We use a small child's wading pool at the base of the mixer to collect the earth plaster as it's made. If you line the pool with a large sheet of plastic, you can make many batches at once and wrap the plaster up at the end of the day. It will keep for weeks stored this way.

This is a picture of the straw, chopped into 1/2" to 1" pieces. Fred accomplished this by using a chipper shredder attached to a lawn tractor. (At this point, I should note that it can be a good idea to wear a mask when chopping straw or mixing the straw into the sand/clay mixture. The straw is very dry and dusty from being chopped. If you don't wear a mask and breathe in the dust, you can end up feeling like you're coming down with bronchitis.)

This is a bucket of slip, clay mixed with water. (I make mine my putting two shovels of clay in a five gallon bucket & adding four to six inches of water. Using a mixing attachment on the drill, it's quick & easy to make.) Before you try to apply earth plaster to your bales, it is very helpful to "paint" the bales with clay slip. It helps the plaster adhere.

In the left of this photo is a pool trowel. (Masons use them when spreading the sand out in the foundation for swimming pools.) The rounded corners make a pool trowel much easier to use than a traditional trowel. Having said that, I don't usually use a trowel at all when I work with earth plaster. I use my hands.

Because the clay is so drying to your skin (and because the straw and wire can poke your fingers), I find gloves to be essential to a happy day of plastering. My favorite pairs of gloves are from Home Depot. I don't remember the brand. They were sold as ladies' gardening gloves, so they fit my hands really well. More importantly, the palms are coated with neoprene. This is very important, because if you use uncoated gloves, the plaster tends to stick to the glove instead of the wall.

My first day of plastering the chicken coop, one hour in:

Update on chicken coop cost: We are still holding tight at $252, again, only because the materials shown are left over from building our house.

Thanks again for joining me on this journey! As always, feel free to comment or ask questions if you would like more technical straw bale details.

Friday, November 20, 2009


It ocurred to me (while mudding the coop interior) that I would really like to take a step back and acknowledge the resources Fred and I used to learn about straw bale construction. If not for the willingness of these authors and teachers to pass on what they have learned along the way, Terra Dei and Haven Homestead would not exist. Many, many thanks!!!

So without further delay...

Lacinski, Paul and Michel Bergeron. Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000.

Magwood, Chris and Peter Mack. Straw Bale Building: How to Plan, Design and Build With Straw. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2002.

Magwood, Chris and Chris Walker. Straw Bale Details: A Manual for Designers and Builders. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2001.

Myhrman, Matts and S. O. MacDonald. Build It With Bales: A Step-by-Step Guide to Straw-Bale Construction. Tucson: West Press, 1999.

Steen, Athena and Bill. The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000.

The Last Straw Journal
HC66, Box 119
Hillsboro, New Mexico 88042
(505) 895-3326

Hands-On Learning:
Yestermorrow Design/Build School
189 Route 100
Warren, VT 05674
(802) 496-5545

Straw Bale Coop (Part 4): Pinning

If you're visiting my documentary of building a straw bale chicken coop because you have an interest in poultry or in straw bale construction, then we have something in common! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below.

(If you stopped by because you are a friend or family member, thanks for the support. I appreciate you so much!)

One of the important aspects of straw bale construction is weaving a wall that is tight and strong. There are many ways to lend strength to a wall, one of which is pinning as you go.

After we finished laying the second course of bales, we drove bamboo stakes down through to lock them into the first course. (I usually use two stakes per corner bale; sometimes you can get away with one stake if the bales are on a short wall.)

This picture was taken from the inside of the coop. I used a level and a soil rake to roughly even out the ground. Next, a layer of small to medium gravel was laid. Finally, I placed a rough floor out of red brick (reused from the chimney in my parents' previous house.) Once the coop is finished we will add a layer of hardwood shavings and start a deep-litter floor for the girls.

Fred and Granddad place the frame for the door:

No matter how confidently the weather forecaster predicts "No rain in sight," it's always a good idea to cover your project. (The day after this photo was taken, we were predicted to have a clear day, yet a small shower took place around 3:00 p.m. It always pays to cover your work.)

In keeping with previous coop posts, I should note that there were no additional expenses in this stage of building. Most materials and supplies were reused from the construction of our straw bale home.

Next post---how we tied the walls into the foundation.

Happy building! Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Straw Bale Coop (Part Three): Buying Local

One of the challenges we set for ourselves is to "buy local" if possible. According to research by The Food Institute and The Hartman Group in 2008, people tend to classify products as "local" if they are made/grown within 100 miles. Sometimes this is easy to achieve, as in the case of locally grown produce. Other items can be harder to come by.

Consider in this context two items I needed for my chicken coop: an exterior door and straw bales.

I was really hoping to find someone who wanted to sell me a used door. (Because really, it's for a chicken coop...) I checked Craigslist and Construction Junction (a nonprofit warehouse located in Pittsburgh specializing in reclaimed construction items.) Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a used door. Before making a purchase at a big box home store, Graddad encouraged me to check with 84 Lumber. (Although a chain, 84 Lumber originated in Eighty Four, PA, approximately two hours from here.) When I spoke with Jon, the manager, and described what I wanted, he led me to a door that hadn't sold due to minor cosmetic flaws. He very kindly gave me the door for $102 (including tax), instead of the regular selling price of $150.

Would I define this as a local purchase? Not really. Even though I was able to patronize a smaller store with more of a local origin, I still don't know where the door was constructed and how far it had traveled to get to there. I'd bet my eye teeth it wasn't within 100 miles!

Contrast this with my straw purchase.

I had twelve bales left from Haven's construction and needed to purchase approximately 30 additional bales for the coop.

Shortly after we purchased our property, we were befriended by a dairy farmer named Mr. B. Though I believe we amuse the neighbors with our straw house and the desire to feed our chickens organic pellets, he and his family have always been very welcoming, ready to include us in neighborhood gatherings and willing to help us figure out the finer points of living in the country.

When I called Mr. B. and M. (his daughter, my friend) to see if they had any square bales, Mr. B.'s response was, "Come on over. We'll get you what you need, load it in the back of my pickup, and get it to your house." We offered the local going price for straw, $3.00 a bale, and also gave an additional $10 for gas and time.

(To keep us up to date with the cost of the coop:
$50 for cement; $102 for the door; $100 for straw. Total = $252.00)

Here's a picture of my straw acquisition:

And here's a photo of me with my friend Mr. B. It was great to obtain the straw I needed, but that pales in comparison to the friendship I value with Mr. B. and his family.

And that, I believe, is the twofold payoff of buying local. You get the measurable benefit of supporting families in your area and stimulating your local economy. More importantly, there is the intangible benefit of depending on each other, of growing together as a community.

And that's an idea in which I can believe.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Straw Bale Coop (Part Two), An Essay in Photos

Our progress as of October 24th, 2009:

Hardware cloth serves two purposes: built-in varmint control and a way to tie the concrete block to the straw bales. Here, Granddad actually tucks the hardware cloth between the first and second courses of block.

Strips of roofing paper will act as a barrier between the bales and the foundation.

Pins will be used to hold the hardware cloth tight against the bales. These were made from wire hangers.

The bales in these photos are actually just holding the hardware cloth in place while we apply surface bonding cement to the foundation.

Misting the wall before troweling on cement...

We used QuikWall (from the Quikrete family), which is a surface bonding cement. This is the same type of product we used on the foundation for the duck house at Terra Dei.

Of all the jobs in straw bale construction, troweling is one of my favorites because it has a high payoff value. You can really see your progress!

These photos cover approximately one day's worth of work for two people. My dad tackled the job of retrieving, measuring, cutting, bending and placing the hardware cloth. (I helped a tiny bit holding it in place while he replaced the block.) The placing of the bales and cement troweling was a team effort with Fred.

In my last post regarding the coop I mentioned that we are trying to keep our coop cost as low as possible. Here's where we stand...

Straw bale structural consultation: Free, from my wonderful husband!
Aforementioned brown block: Free, thanks to Lutherlyn
Labor to dig the trench: Free
Hardware cloth: Free, scavenged from my old chicken tractor
Pins: Free, from old hangers
Roofing paper and straw bales: Free, left over from Haven's construction.
Surface bonding cement: Purchased from DuBrook at a cost of approximately $50.

We are currently searching for a pre-hung exterior door, which may prove to be the most costly part of the project. Having checked Craigslist to no avail, I currently have a call in to Construction Junction in Pittsburgh, a supplier of previously used building materials. Here's hoping!