Frequently Asked Questions
Is it possible to save money if I become the general contractor?
The answer is a conditional yes. If you are good with your hands, a hard worker, physically capable, and well organized, yes, you can save money and be satisfied in your accomplishment. If you have none or only one of above-mentioned qualities, then think twice about being your own contractor. Building a home is a big and demanding job. The learning curve is dangerously steep. In fact, many subcontractors will not even work for owner-builders because of the industry horror stories.
With Harvest Homes, we are a little different. We are happy to have you involved with the building process. We suggest that you participate in one of our workshops prior to making the leap. We will give you guidance. You will see how you can best contribute. And then you can decide how much you want to be involved. You may want to be part of the wall raising and plastering (which is often a lot of fun if done with family and friends). You may like to do the painting. You may want to take the reins and be your own general contractor. Any task done by you will save you having to hire someone else. Our best advice is this: Be realistic in assessing your skills, availability and energy to undertake and complete the job, however big or small.
Is it possible to save money living in a straw bale home?
Energy costs, both in direct out-of-pocket expenses and in terms of environmental degradation, are soaring rapidly and appear to be quickly worsening. Straw bale walls have been rated between R30 and R50 in insulating value or about two to three times better than real world performance of a conventional wall. An appropriately designed, ideally situated and properly constructed straw bale building can deliver terrific heating energy savings while providing more consistent indoor temperature and humidity levels. Similarly, we have but once had clients install an air conditioner because the homes stay cool in the summer. Efficiency and comfort at the same time.
What about resale value?
Since the renewal in interest in straw bale building in Canada has been relatively recent (having grown rapidly in the past several years) and all new straw bale houses have been custom homes designed around the particular tastes and values of the initial homeowner, very few have been placed on the resale market. In the US however, where bale building gained popularity a little earlier than in Canada, straw bale homes often sell at a premium to similar conventional homes in similar neighbourhoods. There is a particular market niche that is willing to pay a little more initially for a home that is unique, aesthetically pleasing, healthy and efficient.
The Canadian market is rapidly showing signs of the same buyer interest as already witnessed in the US. One of our homes constructed in a suburban neighbourhood sold for approximately 30% more than similarly sized houses in the same region. Another nearby straw bale house sold for prices comparable to conventional homes.
Other indicators of strong resale value include small developments near Calgary and Regina that include straw bale homes among their options. And here in Ontario, Harvest Homes is generally booked a year in advance and must decline several projects for each one we accept due to the strong buyer demand.
Is it difficult to obtain a building permit?
Clients for which we are performing the construction have always received a building permit. We ensure sound engineer approved plans and accompanying literature of interest are provided to your building official and discuss the project with them at this early stage to placate fears and ensure a timely permit approval process. Some owner-builders have encountered difficulties or delays in receiving their permits although this is not always unusual with conventionally designed owner-built homes. Your plans will require an engineer’s seal and, if the municipal engineers are unfamiliar with straw bale structures, it is always helpful to provide them with reports and studies from credible sources such as the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
It is best to start out by asking the municipal officials if they have ever issued a permit for a straw bale structure. Whether they have or not, you need to ask them what steps are then required to obtain a permit for this type of construction, and what sort of support documents will be necessary. Is all this difficult? Not necessarily. One needs only to be serious, organized and pay attention to details in assembling your project documents so that they may be reviewed by municipal officials.
Is it difficult to obtain insurance or financing?
Straw bale homes are perfectly insurable. Many have received financing as well. This does not mean, however, that it is always easy dealing with insurance companies or financial institutions. It depends largely on the person with whom you are dealing and your ability to assemble the proper documentation to support your project.
To facilitate your relationships and dealings with insurance companies and banks, you should consider compiling the following documents prior to approaching them:
- Proper architectural plans that are engineer-approved
- A building permit, if possible at this point
- A clean, well-documented and realistic budget from an experienced contractor
Insurance companies seek assurance that your structure has as limited a risk of fire and other potential calamities as possible. Each perceived risk (whether we consider them to be real or not) decreases the likelihood of securing insurance or increases the possibility of higher premiums. If these fears can be proven false with available literature including our own straw bale primer, then you are less likely to have any difficulty obtaining insurance.
Banks on the other hand are more concerned with resale value. In the event that you cannot make your mortgage/loan payments, they want assurance that they will be able to sell your house quickly to recover their investment. Any custom home with special aesthetic or functional features that are particular to a limited interest/demographic etc can make the house less appealing to a broad public. The more outlandish and unconventional your project, the less likely a bank will desire to provide a mortgage. A set of plans that has a reasonably common aesthetic will generate the most interest from loans officers.
Remember, when talking to a building department, insurance company, or bank, the way one communicates is important. If you describe your project with imprecise language, they will understand it imprecisely. If your project documents are a mess, the people you deal with may assume that the risk is too great. Use the proper and precise technical terms. Be organized. You may find enthusiastic support.
Will straw bale meet the commercial building code?
Straw bale walls have been used in commercial-retail, commercial-office and commercial-warehouse applications across the US and Canada. The US Post Office has built straw bale mail-sorting warehouses and Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) employed a straw bale wall in their large scale Ottawa store.
We have fashioned retreat centres, offices, dormitories and agricultural buildings with straw. We have even constructed straw bale portables and permanent school houses for a public school board that meet all of the very stringent requirements for disaster protection of public buildings.
What about fire?
Contrary to what you might think, straw bale walls are effectively fire proof. While loose straw can be burned, there is too little oxygen within the compressed bale walls to support combustion for much time. Straw bale structures were some of the few things that survived the summer wild fires in California in the early 1990s.
In a fire test conducted by the National Research Council of Canada, a plastered bale wall withstood direct flames of 1400+ deg F for two hours before a small crack appeared in the stucco. By comparison, conventional drywall and wood frame wall systems are designed to withstand this temperature for no more than 30 minutes before they burn through altogether. A two hour fire rating is equivalent to a cement block wall and permits straw bale walls to be used in commercial applications.
What about insects and rodents?
Occasionally, there are harmless insects that reside in the straw bales, depending on the time of year they were harvested, and how and where they were stored. They will come out as the bales are handled and disappear from whence they came. As for rodents, they would need to chew through the inch or so of plaster to get to the straw, which is not an attractive task to these little critters. In any case, rodents are not terribly attracted to the straw. Unlike hay, there is no food value in it for them. We have never had a client with rodents in the walls.
What about the expected life span?
When properly built and maintained a straw bale house can have a life span equal to a conventional home. In fact, modern conventional homes are held together increasingly by engineered components that acquire their strength almost entirely through toxic adhesives. These adhesives are slowly off-gassing and degrading and especially if exposed to water, will likely require repair or complete replacement within our lifetime. Straw bale homes use naturally long lasting materials such as sand and lime that have been used for centuries in various ways across Europe, Asia and Central America. Straw bale buildings built by the early settlers in Nebraska and western Canada still stand proud today and are living testimony to their durability.