Many readers ask about simple designs that are suitable for unskilled workers who are working alone on a tight budget. This blog post describes an interesting project in Crestone, CO that illustrates some useful concepts.
First, a quick comment about Crestone. This small town has more strawbale houses than anywhere else in the world. The lax building codes, extremely cold and stormy weather, and abundant supply of straw bales makes building with bales a logical choice for the area.
Another quick comment: Most books, builders and websites tend to profile large, beautiful homes that 90% of us can’t afford. You seldom see small, simple, low cost designs in these sources. That’s why it’s so helpful to go to places like Crestone, where you can drive around and see dozens of small, affordable, owner-built natural homes. In Crestone, there are natural homes everywhere – sometimes one on every block. (Note: this is one reason most building jurisdictions are so strict about codes and regulations. The building/banking/real estate industries know that most people would choose lower cost, more energy efficient housing if it’s available, and so they suppress this as much as possible in order to preserve their profits.)
Here’s a summary of the strawbale house in Crestone. A single woman hired a carpentry crew to construct a simple rectangular structure about 20’ x 30’. The workers set a few roundwood poles, framed in the walls with 2x4s and built a well insulated shed roof with metal roofing. The south-facing wall has lots of large windows (possibly made with patio door replacement glass if I remember correctly) and smaller clerestory windows above so light penetrates to the back of the rooms. The abundant solar gain and slab floor help heat the home throughout the long winters. (She may have installed PEX underfloor heating at a later date.)
The layout is very simple. On the east side is an open living area of about 18’ x 20’ that captures the morning sun. The other side — about 12’ x 20’ — has a bedroom and bath, and fewer windows. A plumbing wall that separates the two main areas contains plumbing for the kitchen and bath.
Once the windows are in, a rough frame like this can withstand the elements until the owner can afford the next phase of construction. Later, the owner ran plumbing and electric, set the bales and plastered the exterior. There was probably another lull in construction as the owner saved up money to finish the interior, which is often the slowest, most expensive stage.
Some final thoughts in closing: The owner may have borrowed a modest amount for this home since it wasn’t 100% owner-built, but the cost would be far below most homes in the US. If she ever decided to move, a 600 sq. ft. superinsulated passive solar home like this would be very easy to sell. She could probably sell it for well above what she paid for materials and labor.