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Our Story - About The Strawbale House

In 2001, Shari, Dave, and Ally Jacoby were living in a 3400 sq. ft. house, with forced air heat, central air conditioning, and incandescent lighting. Our energy bills were getting out of hand. Our average electric bill was 1100 kwh/month and our propane usage averaged 80 gallons per month. In a world of rising energy prices, an environment stressed to the breaking point and conflict over resources, we thought there must be a better way and we felt a responsibility to find it. We started researching alternative building practices and renewable energy with the idea of building our own home and living more simply. Dave took courses on renewable energy and sustainable building with Instructor Steve Kozak at Lac Courte Oreilles community college, Hayward WI, we started attending the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Custer, WI and subscribed to Home Power magazine. We also attended workshops on PV, solar DHW and straw bale building. At the same time we started looking for land. Knowing that our project would involve a passive solar house and use some form of PV, solar thermal, and possibly wind our objective was to find a site with as wide a solar window as possible (full sun from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.) and a wood source for supplemental heat. Already living in a rural area it was not long before we found land that would suite our needs. Beware of acting to soon when buying land, before making an offer we thoroughly walked the land to scout potential building sites, I called several local well drillers to check out average well depths and water quality in the area and when our offer was made it was contingent on a satisfactory perk test for a drain field. Since the land was newly on the market our realtor recommended a full price offer we said no and offered $4,000 less hoping for a counter offer. To our pleasant surprise the seller accepted our initial offer, saving us enough money to put in our 177', 6" steel well and our long driveway plus change!

About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
Ally enjoys the kids tent at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
Laying tubing for solar loops
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems

The land purchase was finalized in December, 2001 and we immediately started design work on The Strawbale House. In Spring 2002 we planted an apple orchard and built a pole shed to work out of. Our initial plan was to be off-grid, but since we had access to electricity at the road it made sense to connect and down the road build a hybrid PV system. (See Site Analysis page for hybrid system)


During the winter 2001-2002 we had a lot of decisions to make such as, what type of house, what materials and processes would be used, how to heat and cool, would we do it ourselves or contract out. So we wrote down our goals; to live closer to our spiritual beliefs with a smaller environmental footprint, use green and sustainable building methods and products, avoid big box stores, do as much local business as possible, educate our community on alternative building and renewable energy, build a home that would out last conventional construction and minimize waste in the construction process. This is just a partial list. One more goal was to build a house that would use no fossil fuels to heat or cool. This was an important goal, we did not want to be held hostage by volatile and costly energy prices and even more importantly we believe that energy is not a birth rite but a responsibility to be used wisely.

Some of the building methods we researched were: cordwood, earth berm, structurally insulated panels (SIPs),rammed tire, rammed earth and straw bale. After much research and a visit to a straw bale house in Northern Wisconsin we determined straw bale to be a viable building method and would best suit our needs and goals. We love the look of bale walls, their strength and warmth their soft beauty, and the way the sun falls on the deep window ledges. Initially, we planned on doing most of the work ourselves over a three to five year period but with Shari and I running a small business and raising Ally we decided to move ahead as quickly as possible and contract out much of the work. Dave would act as the general contractor, coordinate all activities, and we would do as much hands on work as possible. The decision was also made to bring in expert advice on straw bale building. We connected with Mark Morgan owner of Bear Paw Design and Construction Company through the MREA. With over 30 straw bale structures built,Mark is one of the best straw bale builders in the country and it was our good fortune that he lived only 90 miles from us in Strum WI. Mark is also very knowledgeable in all aspects of renewable energy systems. Mark has volunteered countless hours over the last twenty years to make the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair the biggest and best in the world, also as an educator facilitating straw bale workshops all over the Midwest. We invited Mark up for consultation, he was able to give us more insight into the straw bale building process. We talked about the pros and cons of different building designs and renewable energy systems. The consultation was well worth it, we ended up hiring Mark for our project.


Before we got too far ahead of ourselves I visited our local zoning office to inquire about a building permit for a straw bale house, since our township had not yet adopted Wisconsin's universal dwelling code the county zoning office said "no problem" although we did make sure to meet and exceed Wisconsin UDC. Mark has dealt with building inspectors throughout the state of Wisconsin and his structures easily meet and exceed Wisconsin's UDC requirements.


Now it was time to finalize our building design and systems. We looked back on our goals and made our choices. An energy efficient building envelop using the straw bale infill method for beauty and super insulation, passive solar design to capture free heat from the sun, an active solar heating system, a masonry heater, and one level on a slab for convenience and to absorb passive solar gain, absorb heat from our active solar heating system, and as a foundation for our masonry heater. The most energy efficient building design is a sphere, a square is the second most efficient. A sphere would have been too material intense and costly. So we decided on an almost square of 52' by 48' outside dimensions. That gave us an inside dimension of 48' by 44' equaling roughly 2000 square feet.


Our masonry heater is rated to heat 2000 sq. ft., we put it in the middle of the house so it would radiate heat evenly throughout.


By the spring of 2003 the die was cast, we had our building plans drawn by Mark Morgan, we knew what RE systems we would incorporate. Mark put a construction crew together and we got started. I was in charge of hiring and coordinating all other contractors. Mark was in charge of building and educating the other contractors as to what we were doing. We got the building site prepped, forms laid for the foundation slab, and the plumbing installed. Then we put down 2' of sand, laid out our tubing for the solar heating loops, put down another 10' of sand, compacted the sand to spec, then poured the slab.


The slab type we used is referred to as a shallow frost protected footing. The perimeter of the slab is 18' wide and 14' deep with a pair of 1/2" rebar in the bottom third and another pair in the top third. The rest of the slab is 4' deep with a 6' by 6' wire mesh in the top third, with the exception of a 14' reinforced footing under the masonry heater.


The Strawbale house was framed using a modified post and header system, meaning we used a double 2x4 every 10 feet and on either side of every door and window. The top plates are double 2x10's and over long spans such as our south facing doors and windows we used 1 7/8" x 11 7/8" LVL's (laminated veneer lumber) also doubled up. Giving us an LVL of 3 3/4" wide. This type of framing would be similar to simple tip up framing used to frame patio doors. The framing was tied to the foundation with hurricane straps.

About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems Modified post
and header framing
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
Top plate
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems Poultry netting and stitching

After, the framing trusses were set. We used a hip roof design with 3' overhangs to protect The Strawbale House from weather, and also to shade the south facing windows from the summer sun. This is part of our passive solar design. The house design also called for an 11' porch (plus 3' eve) on the west side to protect The Strawbale House from overheating in the harsh western sun of summer. The trusses were an energy heel design, the energy heel allowed us to get 2' of blown cellulose insulation on the top of our bale walls all the way to the outside edge for a proper thermal break to protect against moisture from condensation.


For the roof we used steel shingles made of 50% of recycled steel for the look, the 50 year warranty, and the fact that if they ever need to be replaced they are 100% recyclable. The Strawbale House used blown cellulose for attic insulation to an R-60 thickness, we had two vertical surfaces because of our vaulted ceiling where spray foam was used to an R-40 thickness. For roof ventilation two solar powered vent fans were installed, one on the east hip and one on the west.


Doors and windows were roughed in and we now had a protected space to begin building our bale walls. The windows are low-e, double pane, argon filled.

We were now ready for our straw bales. Shari and I lined up our straw in October 2002, we looked in the local farm paper for straw bales, made some calls explaining what we were doing and found someone who said they could do the job for us. We made a trip to the farm to discuss our needs and were told "no problem" over the winter when he had time the farmer would re-bale his 6' wheat straw bales to our specs 14" x 18" x 36" long. We made a deal and ordered 350 bales. I called the farmer several more times over the winter to check on our order, I was ensured he would have them on time. About three weeks before we needed the bales to start our walls I called the farmer, he said "he was sorry", he tried but could not do it. You cannot re-bale straw properly once it has already been baled. That sent us scrambling for straw bales. We made a lot of calls before locating a possible source for oat straw. Spring and early Summer are not a good time to find straw in Wisconsin. Most baled straw is used for animal bedding and is in short supply that time of year. We visited the farm to check out the straw, it was good straw but the bales were not very tight. Our choice was to delay our project until the fall crop came in (about 2 months) or buy these bales. We bought the oat straw bales, Mark made a bale press to compress the bales to our specs and retie them,we then started building the walls. In order to keep moisture from wicking from the slab into the 1st course of bales, a bottom plate was built using 2x2's screwed into the slab for framing and then filled with 1 1/2" rigid foam board, creating a proper thermal break for the 24' wide bales to rest on. Two foot wide by 8' sheet rock was screwed to the rafters to create the top plate. This allowed us to compress our bale wall when we got to the top course.

We laid our first course on the rigid foam bottom plate notching the bales with a chain saw to fit around the framing, than we opened a few bales and separated out 3' flakes and laid them on top of the first course of bales to help fill voids. The second course was started with a 1/2 bale so we could stagger the seams like laying bricks. This was repeated up to the top of the wall. The last course of bales was forced under the top plate to compress the wall and make it as tight as possible. All seams between bales were tightly stuffed with loose straw to seal up gaps. The electrical contractor laid the wire, cable, and phone lines between bale courses at the proper height. Switch and outlet boxes were nailed to the end of an 18', 2x4 and laid in the appropriate spot between bales. Our plan was to use shallow metal boxes, but the electrician refused telling us that there was not enough room in the shallow boxes for wiring. We disagreed but were already well into the process so we used the deep boxes. After plastering, shallow boxes would have been flush to the wall. The deep boxes stuck out about 3/4", we solved this by framing the boxes with black ash (wood) to match our kitchen and the rest of the interior paneling.

About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
Carl standing on rigid foam bottom plate
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
E.Side before plastering About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
S.Side before plastering About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems
Three foot eve
and scratch coat
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Masonry heater

Even though our 3' overhangs did a good job at protecting the unplastered bale walls, they needed extra protection from rain storms that might soak them, until we got our first coat of plaster on. The first rule of straw bale building is to buy good quality dry straw bales and keep them dry! Tarps were nailed to the facia board, drawn away from the building and weighted down to protect the straw bales and form a dry work area during inclement weather.


After the walls were complete, the next step was to staple poultry netting to the top plate and the bottom plate on the inside and the outside cutting out for windows and doors. This was done to prepare the bale walls for stitching it would also add strength and help the plaster adhere to the walls. With the poultry netting up we started stitching the bales together using 400 psi polypropylene baling twine and a 1/8" round 3' long piece of steel, sharpened at one end and looped at the other (called a bale needle.)


We used a team of two to do the stitching one inside and one outside. The twine was tied off at one end and the other end tied to the looped end of the needle. The needle was pushed through the poultry netting and the bales starting with the first bale in the bottom course then to the first bale to the right or left (depending if you are inside or outside) of the second course in a wwwww pattern, using our forearms to straighten the wall while pulling the twine through as tightly as possible. When we got all the way across the wall the twine was cut and tied off then the process was started again, stitching the second course to the third, the third to the fourth and so on. This created a very strong wall that was ready for plastering.


For plaster we used a mixture of portland, lime, and sand. We used a small batch mixer on site and hand plastered. The first coat or scratch coat was the thickest. We troweled the plaster onto the wall as hard as we could, to penetrate into the straw and fill any voids. We used a steel tool that looks like a hair pic to scratch horizontal lines about 1/4" deep into the plaster before it fully set so that the second coat would adhere. The second coat called the brown coat was also a mixture of portland, lime, and sand. This coat is used to reinforce the scratch coat and smooth out the contours of the wall. For the third coat or finish coat we used portland, lime, screened silica sand, and a cement dye for color. This coat is also referred to as the skim coat and is about 1/4" thick. Setting bales, stitching, and plastering is not for the faint of heart, it is hard work all done by hand (and back), but it is also very satisfying seeing your accomplishments day by day.

We moved to the inside of the Strawbale house where we repeated the same two coats of plaster as on the outside, scratch coat and brown coat. The third coat was a softer gypsum plaster so we could paint to match the interior sheet rock walls. After the gypsum skim coat, we touched up with sheet rock compound for a smooth and finished look.


After plastering we started on the masonry heater. Again extensive research on masonry heaters was done before we decided what would suit us best. We love our masonry heater it's a great way to heat and it's the center of our house. Masonry heaters can be built from scratch or bought as a precast kit and assembled on site. Ours is a heat kit from Quebec Canada and is designed to heat 2000 sq. ft. We burn less than 2 loggers cords of wood each year. We have a wood lot so our wood is free. During the winter of 2008-09 we could buy a loggers cord for $70.00, so if we had to buy our wood we could heat our house for $140.00 or less for the whole year. We tried to buy a kit locally there is a small manufacturer in Duluth, MN, about one hour from us but the decision was based on the bake oven styles. There are two types of bake ovens, black ovens, were the flames from the fire box pass through the grated bottom of the oven and white ovens, where the flames pass around but do not enter the oven. You can't cook in a black oven while you are burning a fire, you also have to clean out the ashes before using. Since no flames or hot gases enter the white oven it can be used at all times and does not need cleaning before use. When we burn two fires a day the oven stays between 350 degrees and 500 degrees most of the time. We use ours to bake bread, make pizzas, for hot dishes, chili, and so on. The bake oven is also used for thawing meat and reheating food. The masonry heater heats our house and also saves us on our propane use for cooking.


At the same time interior walls were framed and sheet rocked, paneling, trim, and doors installed the kitchen went in, plumbing and electrical fixtures installed and so on. Light tubes were installed to bring in natural day lighting. Light tubes are highly polished aluminum tubes that extend from the interior ceiling to the roof. A clear plastic dome with flashing attaches to the tube on the roof to allow sunlight in. An opaque plastic lens cover used to diffuse light into the house connects to the tube on the inside ceiling. Light tubes are great, they let in a lot of natural light without the heat loss associated with sky lights. Non toxic biodegradable, chalk based interior paint was used. Of course, the color we chose was sunstraw. For the floor we decided on stained concrete, so after the slab was cured and before any exterior framing was started we covered it with plastic sheeting and 4' by 8' sheets of OSB for protection during construction. I figured we could reuse the OSB for sheeting the roof of our straw bale garage down the road. The concrete floor was scrubbed twice with tri sodium phosphate (a mild detergent) then left to dry. We used an acid based stain diluted with water for color. A hand pumped pressure sprayer was used to apply the stain in a circular or fish scale pattern. The stain was given 24 hours to dry, the floor was then scrubbed again to remove residue and left to dry. The process was repeated with the second application of stain. When we were finished staining and had a clean dry floor, a non toxic biodegradable linseed oil finish was used to seal it. The finish was applied in two coats by hand with brushes, we tried rollers to make it easier but they didn't do a good job. It was a lot of work, but it turned out beautifully and much less expensive than covering it with carpet or tile. We used a rich dark color for beauty and also dark colors absorb more solar radiation for our passive solar heating. With the finish dry we were ready to move in. We broke ground in April 2003, framed in May and June, set bales and plastered in July and part of August and worked on the interior from mid-August until completion in mid-November. The Strawbale House took a lot of research, planning, and hard work but the results were worth it. Shari, Ally, and I could not have been more pleased we feel we have met many of our goals with a sense of great accomplishment. The collaboration between ourselves and Mark Morgan on The Strawbale House was a big success and Mark believes this is the most efficient house he ever worked on.
About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems



The Strawbale House surpassed our expectations in energy efficiency and we achieved our goal of completely eliminating the use of fossil fuels for heating and cooling. 2008-2009 is the sixth winter we have lived in our cozy abode and we have yet to spend a penny to heat or cool. Amazing, yes? We think so. The Strawbale House has allowed us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel along with their volatile pricing and huge environmental costs. With the help of compact fluorescent lighting and energy star appliances our electric usage has gone from 1100 kwh/month, at our old house, to an average of 350 kwh/month a 68% reduction and well under the Wisconsin average of 800 kwh/month. Our propane usage went from 80 gallons/month to 10 gallons/month an amazing 87% reduction. We do use propane for back up DHW, clothes drying, and cooking. This translates into a reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions from 20 tons/year to 5 tons/year at The StrawBale House, a reduction of 75%. (Using numbers compiled by the US Energy Information Administration.) Out of that 5 tons, 4.2 tons are due to the fact that 100% of our electricity comes from coal fired power plants. In the future we hope to generate 100% of our electricity with PV, this would bring our carbon emissions down to just .76 tons from our propane use.


Our family journey has been very satisfying and enlightening. We have made many friends through the process and connected to a community of likeminded people. We have also achieved some important goals; living closer to our spiritual beliefs with a smaller environmental footprint, using green building methods and products, avoiding big box stores and doing as much local business as possible, educating our community on alternative building and renewable energy, and saving money.


Building our house was a labor of love. The Strawbale House is a testimony to our commitment to the seventh generation and of our responsibility to leave a viable and inhabitable planet for all our relatives to come.


Thanks for your interest in the Strawbale House, please come for a visit!

Shari, Dave, and Ally Jacoby


About the Strawbale House, Straw Bale Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Tours, educational tours of sustainable building construction and renewable solar energy and photovoltaic systems

Sustainability for the future!