How we got to where we are, scroll down for the straw bale house before the blog.
2010 saw the transformation of our derelict barn into a building with substance and a roof. Ideal for storing straw? As we were still back in the UK our input was minimal and the work was completed by Gosias brother and a friend, leaving only the painting for us to do; well that and the stable, which once I hade cleared of straw and ripped out the old wooden stalls and rotted ceiling showed some potential as future accommodation.
In 2011 we started the slow process of building a house, not just an ordinary house, but one made of straw. As you can imagine the whole process of architects, planning permission and the like took a considerable amount of time, especially as Poland must rate in the top ten globally for unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy. Thankfully I was spared most of the stress as Gosia took the reins as the native speaker, for which I will be eternally grateful. I promise I will learn Polish one day!
The decision to build with straw goes back many years, most likely Ben Law planted the seed in my mind when he built his woodland house documented by Grand Designs on Channel 4, and over many years I have bought the books and studied the subject, even though I never thought I would have the opportunity to build one. As well as the green credentials of building with straw I was also drawn by the high insulation values for both sound and heat, not to mention the organic look that can be achieved, although the latter is normally a result of doing the plastering yourself! It has also proved to be quite economical so far, not only is straw cheaper than bricks, but the building techniques allow you to do much more of the work yourself; which is just as well as no one else would!
Following the principle that a straw bale house should have a good hat and boots we decided on a conventional concrete foundation and brick build for the basement, effectively providing a platform to sit the timber frame building on top of. As we are building on a slope we also had to construct a retaining wall, which on reflection seems a little redundant, but then I’m not an engineer and the plans said we had to have one. This wall along with the foundations was completed in the summer of 2011 on a six month visit to Poland with the help of Gosias brother and a close friend who had recently moved back to Poland.
May 2012 saw the start of the build after we had spent the winter away earning much needed funds, funds required to employ a team of builders to build the basement, construct the wooden frame and provide us with a roof; and I have to say that they did a great job in a very short time. Spirit levels were a bit thin of the ground, but then the Polish have a great saying ‘You don’t have to shoot from it’ and to be honest the style of building allows for quite a bit of tolerance 🙂
So with our frame constructed, a roof over our heads and a temporary floor of OSB boards in place, we said goodbye to the builders and prepared the building for bales. First things first we had to make some scaffolding, this was new to me as back in the UK you would simply hire some, but no, not in Poland; in Poland you build your own….out of wood! So off we trotted to the local wood yard in search of 8 meter long posts, the height required to cover the front elevation of the house, but without luck. It seemed that 8 meters is pretty hard to come by and unless you can get in touch with the foresters direct and find someone who is felling then you would normally have to wait until the autumn. But in the end we did find them, albeit from a location 40 miles away, which added almost 30 % to the cost for transport, but what can you do? Of course Gosia, conscious of the cost of these poles proceeded to strip the bark off them so that they would not rot over winter, in the hope that they can be recycled into something else once they have served their purpose as scaffolding. I keep you posted! (pun intended)
We also had a spot of concrete to lay, but this was done in an a couple of days with the our trusty little cement mixer, a wheel barrow and some help from Jakie; who was kind enough to leave her mark!
We had harvested the bails from the neighbouring farm, all 850 of them; whilst the builders where still putting the finishing touches to the roof; now it was time to start building with them. The whole process was surprisingly easy, well to start with at least; the bales were laid in a brick like ‘’stretcher bond’ fashion and notches cut in the bales with a chainsaw so that they could fit around the timber uprights. This did occasionally require the bales to be restrung, but with the aid of a homemade bailing needle and a bit of knot tying practice I became a dab hand and could restring a bale much tighter than the original and pretty much any dimension required.
I had made the frames for the windows so that the height from the floor was either one or two bales high to ensure easy fitting. The depth of the sill will be approximately 16 inches (40cm); making the lower windows ideal for seating, especially once a nice natural wood sill is made to finish them off.
So onwards and upwards the walls went, we had a few issues with the height of the walls and on reflection I should have allowed for the compression of the bales so that we could have had a tighter fit when we reached the ceiling; however a determined bit of gap stuffing and creative carpentry got us round the problem. We will also have the opportunity to stuff any remaining gaps once we start to work on the inside; just wait for a windy day and check for draughts, fistful of straw at the ready!
Once the first wall was completed and corner turned Gosia started to trim the external walls with a hedge trimmer to take out the major bumps and to provide a better key for the clay slip coat, a simple mix of clay and water mixed up to the consistency of thick cream. Our clay came courtesy of the brick factory were Gosias father works during the summer. Each week he would bring a trailer load back home, bricks and pipes of varying sizes and condition that had failed quality control before the firing process, this would then be transferred into sacks (110lbs or 50KG each) and loaded into the back of the van for transport to Pstrongowa; all in all I’d guess we transported close to 10 tonnes (sorry for mixing my measurements) over the last two summers and it sat ready and waiting for its moment of glory.
A clay pit was assembled using straw bales and black polythene, the clay was then smashed up into it and topped up with water to soak overnight. The occasional use of feet to get the mixture going and then out with the drill with whisk attachment and hey presto our first coat ready to apply to the straw. This was initially done by hand and later by flicking it on with a trowel as the clock started to tick faster and against us. On reflection the hand applied clay slip provided the better surface for the next coat to be applied to, as it was worked in deeper by hand it solidified the wall better giving a firmer base; I’ll remember for next time! Also conscious that the hot weather could dry things out too quickly or that a driving rain could wash all our hard work away, we wrapped the building up in tarpaulin.
Once the first coat was completed we started on the second mix, after running several tests of varying mix proportions and different grades of sand we eventually ended up with a 3-course sand, 1-clay, 1-chopped straw recipe. This had to be mixed by hand so we employed a local chap who was looking for work to help us out with the process, and I have to say he did a great job as a human cement mixer, managing to keep up the supply of earth plaster to Gosia and I as we applied it by hand. You will notice in the photos that we stapled ash felt to the wooden uprights and then added a fibreglass reinforcement mesh to this and round the windows to try and prevent cracking and to add strength to areas that would potentially move in the future.
The earth mix went on thick (4 or 5 cm) and in the areas where the lumps and bumps in the wall were severe I went round a second time, after drying, and added even more plaster. As you can imagine this whole process took quite some time, all in all this entire second coat took over three weeks, 10 tonnes of sand and 4 tonnes of clay; we wished for a smaller house on many occasions 🙂
And as soon as this coat was completed we started the circumnavigation once again with the first of three coats of lime render; a mixture of course sand and lime mixed at 3-1 with plenty of water, as this first coat was flicked on by trowel. This went on surprisingly quick and we had to wait for the previous clay coat to dry on the final east wall, not that that stopped us; we simply started on the second coat of render where the first had dried. This second coat saw a change to a finer grade of sand, but the ratio stayed the same, reducing the water as it was towelled on with a float. We also made sure we scored this last coat before it set to give a key for the final coat, which we will be doing in 2013.
The rest as, as they say, is history and recorded in the earlier posts of this blog, so take a look at What a difference a day makes, First lime coat almost finished, Surgical gloves, One wall left, Well it’s finished or Windows 16
Throughout this entire process we were lucky enough to have the help of Gosia family (brothers, mother, father and nephews) and our close neighbours Kazek and Kasia (suppliers of water, food, beer, bimber and laughter) not to forget Dorota and Steve for their reassurance and vehicle rescue service:). If you ever read this then dziękuje bardzo we could not have done it without you. I feel I should also thank mother nature for making sure the weather stayed good for us most of the time 🙂