$7.50/sq. ft. Straw Bale Home

Stephen and Nena MacDonald’s post and beam strawbale house
Stephen and Nena MacDonald’s post and beam strawbale house

Stephen and Nena MacDonald’s post and beam strawbale house in Gila, New Mexico that was built in 1988-1989. The initial shell was $5/sq. ft. and the finished cost was between $7-$8/sq. ft. – Permaculture.org

“Build our house out of straw?” When our neighbor suggested the idea as a solution to our housing problem, both my wife, Nena, and I reacted similarly. “You must be kidding!” Even when he showed us a copy of Fine Homebuilding with an article in it by Gary Strang (1985) on a studio built out of straw bales, we were dubious. It was just too weird (images of rotting hay, mouse hotels, and pig stories readily came to mind). The idea was too simple and straightforward to be believed.

Try as we might, however, we kept returning to the idea of it. It did seem to fit our condition: Using straw bales was 1) low cost…we were near broke, having used the last of our meager savings to buy a small piece of land; 2) a way to stay cool (and warm)…having just moved to southwest New Mexico from Alaska, I was scared to death of the heat; 3) fast and physically easy to build…I just couldn’t face the slow, heavy work of adobe; and 4) ecologically sound…besides being energy efficient, a straw-bale building uses a renewable resource (often viewed as a waste product) that was locally available. Done right, building with straw uses very few trees.
In the end, we decided to go for it. Seven years later, we have no regrets.” – The Last Straw

Our humble little house in this out-of-the-way, very rural valley, has gotten on the map. For awhile there we had visitors almost daily. We should have put out a guest book for all the far-flung people that have come by to see and ask questions. Folks from all over have stopped by (including one from Japan). And in such diversity. Rich and poor, young and old. Ranchers and farmers. Architects, contractors, and engineers. Househusbands and wives. Young “new agers” just starting out. Conservative retirees. Migrant workers and people working with migrants… Looks like another hot day in the valley. Already it’s in the high 90s. During the night we keep the windows open to capture the night’s cool. The mass of our concrete floor helps store it. Thick walls and ceiling keep it in. Inside, the straw bale is holding steady at 75 degrees F. – The Last Straw

Steve O. MacDonald’s Rules of Thumb
1. Keep it small
2. Keep it simple
3. Build it yourself
4. Stay out of debt
5. Use local materials
6. Be energy conscious
7. Make yourself a home
The Last Straw

Image source: Natural Building Gallery
Original article about their house: Permaculture Drylands Journal in 1988
Steve MacDonald is the co-author of Build it With Bales, along with Matts Myrhman. It’s now out of print, but well worth locating a used copy.

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