Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adobe Wall

As I write this post, I am reminded that our initial building plan was to complete this house in just three years. I am also reminded of the construction adage: building will always take more money and more time than you think. This is indeed true for yet another pair of home builders - us.

Scott and I have been back in Torrey for one week now. However Scott completed a big project here while I was wrapping up loose ends in Logan. He built the adobe wall behind our masonry stove. Our thinking is that our masonry stove will heat our big main room and, at the same time, heat the adobe wall. The warm wall will then heat the air in Scott's office on the other side.

So, in early May, Scott contemplated this stack of 151 adobe bricks, which we made last summer with the help of my brother John's family: Wesley, Casey, Kelli, Jessica, Barbara and John.

First Scott framed an 8-foot X 8-foot wall.
He then set up a story pole on the edges of the studs. The purpose of a story pole (also called preacher board or jury stick) is to keep the wall level and plumb as well as to keep the courses at the correct height. He stretched a string aligned with the marks on the story pole and stacked the wall.

One concern we hoped to address was the stability of such a narrow, tall wall - 5 1/2 inches wide by 8 feet tall. To tie the entire wall together, Scott placed a masonry ladder (a welded-metal lattice) within the mortar every other course. The ends of the ladder were attached to the frame on each side of the wall.

The mortar recipe was essentially the same mix used in the plaster on the exterior of the house - high-clay-content dirt from our property, a little added masonry sand, finely chopped straw and water. 

One month later, the mortar has dried and the wall seems perfect. The only thing we have left to do is plaster both sides. That should happen this summer.

A Mouse in the House

When discussing straw bale construction with folks who are new to the concept, we hear some pretty predictable questions.

One of the first things people want to know about is fire danger. While loose straw will burn, baled straw less easily supports flame. That’s because the straw in bales is densely packed. This inhibits oxygen flow needed for fuel combustion. And baled straw covered on all sides with thick plaster is nearly fireproof.

What about bugs? Straw is not like hay, so there is not much nutritional value in it. And once the bales are plastered, there is no avenue for bugs to enter the walls.

Mice? Well, there is grain left in the straw when it is harvested and baled. This does attract mice, especially when they discover what a warm, comfy place it is. That is why it is important to get a coat of plaster on the walls as soon as possible. We were able to get plaster on the exterior of the house last year, but the interior had to wait until this summer. When we visited Torrey last winter, we worried that we would find a lot of mouse damage but we were lucky. This was really the only spot we found evidence of uninvited guests.

We set some traps to capture the little critters, caught a dozen and didn't have any in the house after that. Now our cats are with us. One of them has slain at least 20 mice in the yard around the house.
 He's not called Peter Panther for nothing!

Sometimes, with a little chuckle, people make reference to “the big bad wolf.” Keep in mind that wolves are on the endangered species list, so there are not many of them around anymore. And we’ve yet to hear of huffing and puffing as a cause for the collapse of a straw bale house.


While we have been researching cabinets and shelving, we’ve often come across the term “built-ins.” They probably aren’t referring to built-in table saws though.

Last summer, before we put even the first bale of straw in place, we set our very heavy, cast-iron table saw inside the house with the help of our tractor. This saved us time when we needed to cut the many, many, many pieces of wood required to make window bucks, door trim, lath and more. All summer long that table saw sat in Scott’s office doing the work it was created to do. As the days passed by, bales were stacked, plaster was applied, and doors and window installed—the house rose up around it.

Now we are ready to plaster the inside of the house, but we had to get the table saw out. The size of the saw was slightly smaller than the width of the door (we actually did measure to make sure this was true before finishing the walls). But once the walls were up and the doors on, the saw seemed huge. One part of the saw did need to be removed and then a 32-inch-wide, 400 pound mass had to be ever so carefully eased through a 36 inch door without bashing the wood trim. Scott moved it himself, working very slowly and carefully using basic tools—inclined planes and levers—and got it out the door and down to the porch where the tractor could pick it up and move it to the garage. The door trim still looks good.

Table Saw in situ
Table Saw "out situ"