Natural Building using wood and straw bales – by James Grace

After working on a variety of building sites in my career as a carpenter I wanted something radically different when it came to my own home. I didn’t know what it would be, all I knew was that I was unwilling to use the materials which had for me come to represent everything that was cold, unimaginative and depressing about a booming industry that was soon to collapse.

The first time I saw pictures of a straw wall I was smitten – the textures, curves and sheer size of the finished wall hooked me in, the more I researched it the more convinced I became that this was the way forward for me.

The house was a pleasure to build and continues to be a pleasure to live in.  It is warm, airy and comforting. We’ve been surprised and delighted at the reaction it gleans from first-time visitors who have been genuinely moved by it. I never tire of seeing strangers walk freely through it, touching, smelling and smiling as they go.

Q:  Where did you source the wood – did you have to pay for it?

I sourced the Douglas fir framing timbers from a sawmill in Wexford and the trees were felled in the Wicklow/Wexford region. I bought enough to use throughout the house for door frames, doors, window frames, fascia and for building the kitchen and some of the furniture. It’s an attractive, stable and good value timber which was dry enough to use for interior purposes by the time I was finished the structural works.jamesgrace1

Q: Was the house significantly cheaper to build than a conventional house?

I would say yes, I’m a woodworker and the dominant material in the house is wood which meant low labour costs. Other materials such as the clay and lime renders, and straw bales are somewhat forgiving for a beginner to use and we were thus able to save on labour costs by also doing these ourselves.

In terms of buying materials I don’t think it was any cheaper but I would suggest that the end results are very good in terms of performance if like-for-like costs are compared. I think if we were to build a conventional house that was as warm as it is and had as many features as it does it would not have been within our budget.

At the end of the day it comes down to more than just the money you spend, you have to consider performance and aesthetics too, anything that contributes to the quality of life within the house is important.

Q:  Did you have any experience with straw bales or did you do a course?

I went to England for a course as there were none in Ireland, but I learned far more from books and searching for online tutorials. Aside from the structural design of a straw wall which is probably the most important thing, the basics of building one are easy to grasp and it doesn’t take long to become proficient at it. Mostly it just comes down to being able to cut and tie a bale to your desired length, once you have that down you can build an insulated wall ready for rendering in an amazingly short space of time.

Q:  Can you give us a basic outline of the steps that you took in building the house, from planning to completion?   jamesgrace3

Planning was as usual with a few conditions attached in terms of appearance, it took a bit of work to find an engineer with experience of this type of work though. My fiancé and I designed the layout and worked out which materials to use where. The building process was slightly unusual, after setting foundations in place we erected the frame and roof before starting on the walls, in fact the windows and doors were in place before the exterior walls were. First-fix plumbing and electrical works came next and the house was then floored before the partition walls were erected and interior renders applied. After this I built the kitchen and bathroom and we moved in before our first son was born with a few weeks to spare.

Q:  How do you heat the house?

We use a wood-fired range which takes care of our cooking, heating and hot water and which needs a good supply of well-seasoned wood. Throughout the summer and early autumn we use softwood but switch to a softwood/hardwood mix in the colder months.

We haven’t been here long enough to have averages yet but I’d guess that we burn between 7 and 10 cubic metres of wood each year. The softwoods we buy directly from the forest as logs in loads of 10 or 20 cubic metres and I saw, split and stack them myself.

The hardwoods are sourced whenever a good opportunity presents itself, they can be windblown, felled or someone will be clearing a field somewhere.

Q:  What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of building their own house from natural materials?

Do your research and talk to people who’ve done it, most people are only too happy to talk, meet and welcome you into their home so that you can get a feel for it. Hopefully they will point out their mistakes along with their successes so that you can avoid these at the design stage. It’s worth remembering that natural materials aren’t limited to things you find in fields and beside rivers, there is an array of exciting and intelligent products which are on the market that offer you the best of both worlds-natural materials which are used as part of a system. Anyone who has built a straw wall or hammered a cob one will appreciate the ease of building with regular shapes or panels that slide into place.

Q:  Would you encourage people to build their own house from natural materials, and why?

Only if they showed an interest and had a somewhat realistic idea of what to expect! It can be extremely cost effective and, although it can also be labour-intensive, it is good fun and attracts people who are of a like mind, who want to lend a hand and have a go. I’ve worked in both the mainstream building industry as well as natural building and I can say that they could not be farther removed from each other, I’ve had much more fun building with the latter.

Using raw materials tends not to be an exact a science as conventional methods but it is quite forgiving and I think their greatest assets are their effortless abilities to breathe, control humidity and create interesting and healthy spaces while preserving our environment.

Q:  Can people contact you for information and advice if they wish to do the same?

By all means, I love to hear from anyone who’s considering or carrying out natural building works. It’s a relatively small network in Ireland but a growing one and a friendly one. It’s important that we all share our opinions and experiences and if I could be of any help to someone starting out on the path I’d hope they wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone.

Q:  What types of services and products do you offer?

Grace Architectural Wood Design offers a design and build service for the home and garden and specialises in heavy wood structures and furniture. I use traditional pegged joints and durable native species of timber.

Q:  Where can people see your work and where can they contact you?

The majority of pieces are located on private grounds so visiting or is the best place to find past works and you can email james@gracedesign or call 086 660 9818.





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