Straw, Sticks or Bricks?

Hey there all!  So we know we need water, but in long term survival, shelter is one of the first concerns you would want to address.  After all you want to make sure that you are protected from the elements which as we addressed way back now in Lord Give Me Patience and Give It NOW! Wyoming weather is just like the temperamental toddler who wanted dried grapes, not raisins.  But also knowing that we are going to be developing a home off grid and want to try and be cost effective what is going to be the best option for us?  What options are out there?  Would we tempt the big bad wolf of hurricane force winds in homes of straw, sticks or bricks?  Are any of these even feasible options?  In the vein of the three little pigs, which ones would sustain the F1 / Category 1 force winds? Let’s explore…

So as a completely disclaimer, our level of construction experience is currently at zero-That will change some day but to date, we have never built a home of our own.  Therefore, the bulk of my research of these different types of these construction methods is based on YouTube videos auto playing down the rabbit hole that is watching a single video I looked up for and also of the HGTV show called “Off the Grid”  We’ve actually been able to learn a lot from watching these including the concept that maybe we are not as crazy as others…in our opinion.  This is not legal advice nor anything more than our opinion, side effects of continuing on and reading included but are not limited to: Happiness, confusion, headache from laughter, puzzlement, curiosity, tingly foot, hunger, distraction from reality, forgetting what it was that you were going to do, etc.

The first methods that we have seen employed multiple times now and seems like a really innovative and unique way of constructing a home is using straw bales.  Size of these structures can vary greatly where I have seen them personally from around 600 sqft to 2,000 sqft, some of them have lofts or sleeping lofts.  Once the foundation is set either by a poured foundation, pier or stone stacked, a wall structure is constructed and erected, but not with standard studded timber framing that you might initially thing about.  The walls are erected with some structure to help contain the straw bales.  The straw bales are allowed to thoroughly and completely dry out, this is a critical step so mold doesn’t grow and propagate in the walls.  Bales are stacked in the walls, windows and doors framed and bales cut to fit.  Once the walls are completely filled in, much like stucco, a chicken wire is affixed to the interior and exterior walls and an encasing material; we’ve seen plaster, clay, stucco to all straw surfaces.  After the  exterior walls are sealed, some interior walls can be erected to create rooms for privacy but most of these style homes take the open concept to an extreme and there typically aren’t many rooms.  That being said there is nothing that would prevent this house of straw to being absolutely fabulous inside. 

Next method we’ve seen I’ve heard called multiple things, rammed earth, compacted earth, compressed earth, but all these names from what we have seen translate to the same type of construction method and the results can be quite beautiful.  In this situation, the foundation walls are set as with every construction method that we are going to discuss today.  Once you have your foundation, sets of forms are erected and depending on the location of the home, we have seen only the rammed earth wall, triple layer wall consisting of rammed earth, insulation, rammed earth or rammed earth, insulation, and dry wall.  The concept is the same though.  Once the forms are set, a layer damp but not wet earth is placed in the forms.  The earth is a specific blend of clay, sand, and binder either gravel or sometimes we’ve also seen the final form use cement also.  The layer of earth is then tamped down and compressed as much as possible.  This process is repeated throughout the structure and forms for doors, windows or other exterior access points are also place in the wall.  Colorants can be added for design aesthetic as well. Once the rammed earth is dried and set the forms are then removed.  This result really truly can be visually stunning but is also very labor intensive.

There are a few other methods of earthen home construction I have seen however I am not an expert in any capacity and would encourage you to take what I say as a launching point of interest and then to do your own research.  These methods include adobe, cobb and earthships.  Adobe is likely the one that you have heard and familiar with.  These are the structures that you think about in the Southwest of the United States.  With adobe, a blend of materials is made and bricks are formed.  Using those bricks, homes can be constructed.  Cobb is a completely new technique to me and one that I acknowledge right here and now will probably misrepresent the most.  These types of are extremely similar to their adobe cousins using a specific combination of clay, sand and other earth and they typically from what I have seen try to source the bulk of their materials from the location you would try to build.  The difference is that the cobb homes also have straw mixed into them.  This combination of materials lends itself to having thicker walls that the aforementioned and therefore that thermal barrier that will aid in keeping temperature of the home regulated.

Earthships are something that we have looked at perhaps not so much in the respect that we want to build one, but rather take some of the design aesthetics and features that will support an off grid home better than a stick build.  Earthships are a twist on a passive home, more on that later but also focuses on utilizing upcycled materials so as not to use or generate additional wastes.  Often times the back walls use filled in old tires and built into a hillside for that extra level of insulation where available.  These homes are built in a manner where the entire southern wall is a wall of windows to allow the sun in and in some of these homes a green house system is built into the southern portion to reuse grey water.  There can be some beautiful features in this style home that you might have seen before such as bottle walls and the mosaics of recycled materials.

Moving on from straw and earth type homes, the next type of home the big bad wolf went after was the homes built of sticks.  The most basic home that we could do is a traditional, pun intended, stick built home.  These are your typical everyday home built with lumber and for this blog purpose….Booooooriinnnnngggg.

Another option that we have been exploring is a log home.  While this style home is definitely more at home in the vast forests of evergreens, they definitely have their place out on the prairies as well…assuming you can get the logs which is not a problem in modern times.  After working with and architect to design your home, cut logs which have been drying for months are cut to specifications.  The logs are milled to ensure the tightest fit possible and are thermally inclusive in the sense that no additional insulation is needed.  If you felt like more is needed you absolutely can work a way to get more and your also would want to focus the attention on the roof / roof / wall intersection.  One of the concerns that some may have about log homes is that you have a home that is ripe for a giant bonfire.  Ironically though this is not the case.  Even in comparison to a tradition style home, your surface area to fuel ratio is in your favor and even if a fire the charred exterior creates a fireproof-er layer that even has a name in Japanese culture of shou sugi bon. This blacken layer will create a unique design, fire resistant and critter repellent also as there is no longer any organic matter to engage with.  Needless to say, a log home isn’t entirely off the table for me, but I do believe that we will be going down a different path for our forever home.

There’s homes of straw and homes of sticks and the big bad winds of Wyoming we are hoping can withstand bricks.  We are currently leaning toward building a passive inspired ICF home.  What is ICF?  ICF is an acronym which stands for insulated concrete forms.  In this style of home construction, foam bricks essentially are stacked up like giant lego blocks.  These bricks have two layers of foam on opposing sides plastic struts hold these two sides of the foam together and are reinforces in the hollow between the two sides of the foam with rebar.  Once the bricks are assembled with jams for the doors and windows installed and the walls braces, cement trucks are brought in to fill the rebar reinforced spaces with concrete.  After the walls are poured and cured, a roof is put on top and the interior of the home is completed like a standard stick build.  It is entirely possible to also utilize the ICF bricks for the interior walls of the home but this can cause issues while trying to run electric / plumbing.  That being said, as long as appropriate levels of planning are taken on the front end this is not an issue.  

Another reason why ICF is appealing for us is actually exemplified by the passive style home we want to construct. Constructing an off grid home, we have to try and take into account how we can be as energy efficient as possible. ICF can create such a good airtight building and is so good at maintaining temperatures that you need to make sure a good air exchange system is designed into the systems so you don’t have stagnant air.  The ICF construction helps to maintain a comfortable environment in the wide range of temperatures, which Wyoming can have (example, as of writing this, the impending low on Tuesday is slated to be -27F and the high two days before will be in the mid 50’s). 

Wyoming also has a running joke that if the wind ever was to stop blowing, we’d all fall over from not knowing how to walk without wind, Wyoming doesn’t have wind socks, we have wind chains, and anything under 50 mph winds is but a light breeze.  F1 and category 1 winds are a fairly normal occurrence and we will be building on a high point of the surrounds area.  ICF homes are known to be able to withstand tornado and hurricanes better than their neighbors.  Therefore the durability of ICF is extremely appealing to us.  

Amvic ICF Home Survives Hurricane Dorian as Surroundings Collapse

The other component that we want to incorporate into our home is passive design.  This means to us an abundance of windows on the south side of our home with roof overhangs that allow the warm winter sun in but will block the hot summer sun out.  The ICF construction and concrete floors with radiant heat we intend to have will provide a good thermal mass to keep our home warm in winter and cool in summer with minimal energy consumption.  We’ll also ensure that we have good insulation in the roof and in our windows so that our need for typically gridded functionality will be minimal.  

So while we have our choices of straw, sticks or bricks…I think that we will go with bricks!

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