Straw Bale and Rammed Earth Photodocumentaries

Exposed Straw Wall with Truth Window

Outside Front Door

Straw Bale Church, Rammed Earth House

Building with compacted earth is a most ancient building process, yet here you will see a lovely, modern rammed earth house that we built about 5 years ago. Building temporary housing with straw and grass is also ancient, but building a strong, secure, and long-lasting building from straw is relatively new. This Episcopal church has straw bale walls and is being built by the congregation of Saint Francis in the Redwoods in Willits CA. The picture at the left are the unfinished straw bale walls. Note the "truth window" in the center, leaving a view of the wall structure.

Alternative Building in the Willits Area

The Willits valley, and Mendocino County in general, have always been a rich source of alternative building. About twenty years ago residents forced the county to adopt a "Class K" alternative to the standard building codes that was more relaxed for personal structures. Along with rammed earth and straw bale, we have a number of cob houses, including the first cob house to code in the state. This site will focus on straw bale and rammed earth though because of our familiarity, their durability and speed and ease of construction.


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Alternative Building in Mendocino County

Straw Bale Photodocumentary

Building a Green Church

Lifting The Church Trusses

Garden View

Shadowy Straw Bale

Trusses and Round Window

Living Room From South

Living Room From North

Stairs and Light

Bath Skylight

Alternative Housing can be Stylish, Attractive, and Comfortable

  • This house and this church are good examples of what can be done artistically and economically with alternative building methods. But the real payoff is in immediate and long-term comfort. The insulation in both cases is very effective yet completely non-toxic. Our rammed earth house's temperature naturally stays in the low 70s most of the year, and keeps the house warm at a constant temperature 24/7 in the four winter months, with average heating costs. Our straw bale church has already demonstrated its insulation-abilty, both of temperature and sound. This church is right on the corner of the busiest intersection in Willits, yet inside it is already quiet even though we still have a large opening facing that intersection. Both building methods exhibit an unusual sense of restfulness. When our working children visit us they usually sleep a lot; because it is so peaceful, they can really catch up on their sleep.

  • Alternative Housing can be Very Safe

    • It cost us about $5,000 for the engineering to ensure that our house would easily survive an earthquake of magnitude 8. The walls are 18" thick and essentially stone, many forts are not this well built. I think the best example was waking in the morning in a relaxed and quiet house. I walked into the living room and saw through the picture windows that a 40 mph gale was blowing with rain driven every which way. I watched it for awhile like an aquarium in reverse, finally deciding I should go outside later to experience this. Rammed earth and properly plastered straw bale are fully resistant to bugs and vermin, and strong proof against the weather.  

    • Alternative Housing can be Cost Effective

    • We built our rammed earth house 5 years ago for about $85 per square foot, using the best builders we could find, and putting in quality materials. This was a move-in price. While our church will cost about $850,000 to build today, this is considered a good price for premium construction, especially under the circumstances. Where this type of construction really shines is in the the long-term costs - they are much lower. One savings for me is getting at least two weekends a year free - that is what I am saving by not ever having to touch my walls - not paint them, not protect them, nor replace them. The finish on our church has a good track record in Europe, and its color and strength last at least 40 years.

    Rammed Earth Construction

    This section is not complete. I will have to scan photos of the construction at some later date. What you have is different views of the house we built. It took six months from start to move-in. The construction site was usually as quiet as the woods - except ram days which were still quieter than most building sites. It weighs something like 25 tons and in a major earthquake will float like a houseboat. The roof is directly connected to the walls every two feet. The interior partitions are standard wood stud and wall board. The acoustics are excellent, although it is a hard house to speak secrets in.

    Hot summer days are the most impressive. It is wonderful to watch someone walk in the door, walk out again, and walk back in. The temperature difference is impressive. Especially so since we have a very open house with lots of windows and no curtains (we live in the country). On summer days it is hard to see the flame on the stove; it is that bright.

    Our dog is completely spoiled. He has cool floors to lie on in the summer. With radiant heat in the floor, he has a warm belly all winter. Sodden clothes and muddy boots are no problem, just throw them on the floor and they will be dry the next day, and the mud has turned into dust.

    I do no maintenance on the walls. They do not rust, rot, peel, or fade. They are proof against insects - termites are totally frustrated. Ants have to come in the doors. No siding to replace, ever. No wet rot or dry rot, ever. It is a profoundly anti-fungal environment - pretty dry but not chafing. I expect someone's (hopefully my) great-grandchildren will be arguing over who moves in.

    We considered doing a straw bale house - I would say it is the most popular alternative building method in Mendocino County. Most of the straw bale houses ever built are still standing, sometimes a hundred years old. Yet we rejected it because it is not a permanent structure. Probably 100 to 200 years from now it will be gone. Yet we decided not to build a rammed earth church mostly because it must be kept heated all the time, and we at the time did not think we would be using the church that much. It also has better sound insulation, which is crucial in this location.

    Straw Bale Construction

    In California we can get rice straw from the Central Valley. The high silica content of rice straw makes it particularly rot resistant. One rice grower has a second business providing highly compressed, standard-length bales that have been conditioned for a year. This allowed us to place almost all the bales in one work weekend. While loose straw is quite inflammable, compressed straw is quite resistant to fire. Encasing the bales in plaster makes them pretty fireproof.

    My research so far has only uncovered two other straw bale churches in North American, and perhaps the world. This is an excellent renewable building method. The straw in our walls is not load-bearing, that is, it does not hold up the church at all, the wood frame does this. We do have at least one example in Mendocino County of a house built with walls made completely of hay. The windows and doors are framed in by the bales, and the bales support the roof very well.

    Resource Management

    We are running out of trees to build houses with. They are better used in other venues. They crack, they rot, and they dry out. We can drastically lower the amount of wood used in a house while making it better and longer lasting. For the church we did not need much fiberglass insulation or any vapor wrap. In both structure the walls are chemically inert. Both have slab concrete foundations that have to be made more comfortable, but are proof against any type of vermin.

    Bill and Betsy Bruneau
    18001 Shafer Ranch Road, Willits, CA 95490-9626 USA
    Copyright 2008, William Bruneau


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