Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Wall Raising: Week 1

I set the date for the start of wall-raising a long time ago: May 26th, Bank Holiday Monday. Half-term week.  Lots of students just finished their exams. I thought this would be a good time for volunteers to come for a week.

Day 1: I have two resident volunteers and five who have come for the day. Three of the seven are long-standing friends; two I have met through the POOSH network, and two I have met through other networks.

It's warm and sunny. Perfect weather for straw bale work. And the jobs lined up are: finish filling the wall cavity with RFG gravel; start making the base plate; make some hazel stubbies and finish putting up the tarps as curtains around the building.

But: there is a design issue to sort out first: how long are my bales? I have designed the entire building with the assumption that the bales I use will have an average length of 1050mm. The very first job of the day, before we start making the base plate, is to dress a few bales, lay them along the stem wall and measure them.

This didn't take too long with eight people. Also, the bales have very square ends already. I think it must be to do with the mechanical strapping, handling and storage of the bales, but they needed much less dressing than bales I have handled before

We laid eight bales along the stem wall and measured them: 7980mm, an average length of just under a metre. This meant that my longest wall of 8.4 metres was going to be closer to 8.5 bales than the original 8 bales I had planned. Time to get out the revised bale plan and elevation, now 5 x 8.5 bales rather than the original 4.5 x 8. It's a bit of a problem: all my openings are multiples of 1050mm, so I can foresee quite a lot of bale splitting coming up. I will also need around 10 more bales than originally planned.

Luckily, I bought some extra bales. Unluckily, or carelessly, I have already got some of them wet. It turns out that the green tarp on the dome is only waterproof for a few weeks, then it start letting water in. I have eight bales already with damp patches.

Lunch outside. Hats & suncream needed.

Then it was on with the base plate:

Making stubbies in Bodger's Corner:

Putting the curtain sides of tarp around the building. My tarp supplier had to supply stripy market stall tarp instead of white. Luckily, I chose white with red stripes:

So they are nicely colour-co-ordinated with the old cargo netting that one of my friends has kindly lent me. It looks like I'm opening a circus! As usual, there are no photographs of the afternoon-long struggle to get the tarps up, because I was the one struggling with them.

Tea break in bodger's corner:

Thanks to everyone who contributed to a great first day. We have most of the stubbies, a half-constructed base plate, a few dressed bales and  the south and west sides of the building protected from rain. Unless we had the unlikely combination of heavy rainfall and a north-easterly wind, we should be able to keep the site dry.

Day 2:  We woke on Tuesday to heavy rainfall, blown in on a brisk north-easterly wind. This was probably the wettest day for several years in this area. There were flash floods in many residential streets in Norwich. Water poured in through the exposed eastern side of the shelter whilst I fought with tarpaulin sheets outside. The tarpaulin roof started to dish with pools of water in between the horizontal lathes.  It wasn't like Monday, and there aren't many photos of happy smiling POOSHers.

There were in fact no POOSHers today, but two volunteers from other connections.


Great work from Mary and Katy in terrible conditions. By the end of the day, the sections of the baseplate were complete,

I spent most of the day trying to keep the water out. 

Day 3: POOShers = 2, friends = 1, other connections = 1. Weather: cloudy and damp, rain in the afternoon. 

It was outdoor weather in the morning, and I had two new volunteers, so we spent a little time in bodger's corner sorting and shaping the hazel. In the afternoon, Owen and Oskar assembled the large window box, whilst Paul and I worked on completing the baseplate


I believe this is old-school window method for straw bale building, but my straw bale education does not include the post method, and I don't have the tools for making slots for window posts in my bales. It's a bit of a monster: a heavy lift for two people, probably better with four.

Day 4. POOSHers = 1, friends = 1. Weather: light rain, overcast.

I found two buckets in the garden this morning, both with around 3 inches of water in. I'm fairly sure they were both dry buckets on Monday, and that all the water in them has fallen as rain since then. In this area, three inches of rain represents about one tenth of a year's average rainfall, so I think it would be fair to say that I have not been very lucky with the weather in my chosen "Build" week. 

So another indoor day, but not wasted. We have finished preparing the hazel:

Stubbies: (300mm, press fit in a 32mm noggin hole)


Withies: (900mm, overall thickness less than 25mm)

And long stakes:  (1350mm, any diameter)

I may have just made up some of these names. We have made 50 of each.  There may be a few more needed for the window boxes

Paul has been shovelling the RFG into the cavity. I had originally planned to place sheepwool insulation in the baseplate, but I have a surplus of RFG so it seems logical to keep filling the cavity up to the top of the baseplate. 

Here's a photo of rainwater on a tarpaulin. The reason I include it is that this photo is taken inside my dome straw shelter. The rain is seeping through the outer dome cover, and would be soaking my straw if I hadn't put another tarp or two inside. For the record, the dome cover is a Tarpaflex "Super Tarpaflex" mid-grade 140 gsm 8 x 12 metre tarp. Don't waste your money on one of these!

What else? I've made corner guides for all the corners, all beautifully plumb and square, I hope:

And I've had a big tidy up, and made a new tool station that takes up a minimum of space in the tent:

There is no more carpentry to do. Tomorrow, it's straw wall-raising.

Day 5; Sunshine! And no rain. 1 POOSHer.

So: Curtain up! I suppose it would be possible to raise the walls with the side tarps down, but I prefer to have the sides open when I'm building. We have laid some bales along the plinth wall. They are not in their final positions yet, we are just sizing them up.

Straw bales do not come in standard lengths. In fact, there will be some variation in bale lengths from any baling machine. We have discovered that eight bales (and one crossways at the corner) will be a good fit on the long back wall, but that the two short and two part-walls will all most likely require a bale to be resized to fit. Bale resizing takes two people around 15 to 20 minutes per bale, and requires concentration and strong hands, so the poor estimate of actual bale size  is going to cause quite a lot of extra work.

Hazel stubbies fitted to the baseplate. we are going to lower the bales onto the stubbies so that they can't move sideways. There will be 23 bales in the first course, and we've got 46 stubbies ready

and here goes the first bale.

Some of the stubbies are a little loose, and require a few hazel chips to be hammered in to wedge them.

And we got about 2/3rds of the first course of bales in position before Paul had to leave. Two bales were successfully shortened, although not always at the first attempt.

Positioning bales over hazel spikes and forcing them down is not a job to try and do solo, so once Paul left I concentrated on getting the tarp sides back in position, moving more bales down from the store and tidying up. I'll be building again once I have some volunteer help - hopefully on Monday or Tuesday next week

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Covering Up

The pile of wood under the light blue tarp is a complete frame for my temporary roof. Today is the day to put it up and get the site under cover.

First job was to clear the floor for the scaffolding tower that needed to roam about inside. The eight pillars are leaning on the fixed scaffold like drunkards, and the remaining timbers have been stacked all around it.

These pillars are pretty wobbly by themselves. They are designed to fit along the walls and in the corners, so they do not have all-round supporting bases.

The first rafter goes on, propped with a piece of 3x2. Hope there isn't a sudden gust of wind........

It's 11 o'clock. All four rafters in place. The two at the ends are propped, the middle pair are stable enough to stand up by themselves - as long as I don't get a domino-style collapse. 

1.30. I have spent the second half of the morning putting in horizontal and diagonal bracing. All feeling much more stable. I've made a box, about the size of the building I'm planning to make - but in a morning!

Afternoon: I am adding some battens to make a very lightweight deck to support the tarp. I'm using 22 x 50mm battens set on edge and nailed to the rafters.

4.30: Roof deck complete.

I unfolded a 7 x 9 metre tarp on the deck at around 5.00 this afternoon,  and encountered my first real problem. Some of the eyelets on the tarp were missing. On inspection I found that ALL the eyelets were unpressed; they could be flicked out with a fingernail. Completely useless!

Luckily, I had just the tool for the job. When I modified a tarp for the dome or bale shelter, I bought a eyelet stamp and dye. I had to go round the edge of my new tarp and stamp every one of the 64 eyelets. In situ, on the roof. In a strong wind.

So it was about 7.00 when I finished. But it's quite an impressive structure to have built in a day, without help. It looks like my building is already there! Though the truth is, this is all temporary, and if everything goes to plan, I should be taking it down again in about 4 - 6 weeks to reveal a straw building within.

Friday, 9 May 2014


It's the beginning of May, and only a couple of weeks until we build up the walls with straw bales. So how are things going?

The big news this week is that the straw has arrived. I ordered my bales way back in August last year at harvest time, and they have been in storage since then. And now, here they are:

Nice as it would have been to buy my bales from the farm down the road, I decided that I would search out the very best bales that I could buy. The price, including storage and delivery, was around five times what I would have paid for local bales, but they are very firm, very square, and a regular length. And although the focus is very much on the straw used in construction, the cost of bales is a very small fraction of the total cost of this building and it doesn't make sense to compromise.

Slight snag is: the bales are in large packs with 21 bales to a pack and they need a forklift truck or telehandler to unload them. And even if I had one, I couldn't take it up my garden to the bale store and build site. But help is at hand from the lovely couple in a farm (the one at the end of the road.) With a JCB telehandler, it's just a 15 minute job to get them all into his barn. I've bought 6 packs, 126 bales.

Then it's 7 trips down the road and up the garden with the trailer to get them under cover in my bale store.

Floor lined with pallets to keep them off the ground

The stack takes shape, about 40 bales here.

And yes! - they all fit in. Hard to take a photo of, but I think you can see there is still space to spare. The bales on the right in this photo are not going to be used in construction. I have six bales left over from the slab insulation that I used over the winter which I have kept for sitting on. Compared to the bales just delivered they are a bit soft and fluffy. Also damp, because they got left outside for a couple of nights


Other recent work has been to get the building scaffolded. Another straw bale builder has very kindly lent me a couple of tons of scaffolding for the summer, and I have constructed a deck all the way round at about 1.5 metres height. This is a bit of a compromise: the ideal height for work at eaves and roof level might have been 1.0 to 1.2 metres, but that would have been uncomfortable low for working on the lower part of the outside walls.

Temporary Roof

I am providing weather protection over the building while the straw walls are going up. I've been on straw builds before where there is a mad scramble every time the rain starts, and it can be very disruptive. I don't want to have volunteer builders here who have given their time to come and help sitting around waiting for the weather to improve. So I've made 8 of these pillars, and I will construct a lightweight roof of rafters and battens, brace the structure and cover with a tarp. I'll also have curtainsides of tarp all the way round which can be lifted and stored on the roof while we are working, and dropped if it rains.

It's a work in progress. I designed the temporary roof before I knew I had the scaffolding, so it might take a little modification to get them to fit together.