Strawdust ... Sussex Straw Bale Self Build Complete

The site for Strawdust is located next to green fields on the periphery of the built up boundary of the village. Our brief was to design an unusual eco home for one person with an organic form and feel. Our suggestion of straw was met with enthusiasm and initial sketches of a round hobbit like home met with excitement!

Climbing the minefield that is the planning system helps when you have a good planning department. West Sussex is served by Mid Sussex District Council who have approved this small one bedroom house of straw bale construction. I’m really proud to say that Ecotecture’s reputation for genuinely ecological architecture definitely helped in the positive outcome. Our realistic and achievable sustainability statement formed part of the application.

Straw bale as a construction method has very simplistic basic design criteria. Its organic nature requires strong boots to protect from moisture and a good hat to protect the walls from excessive rain. The round walls in our client’s case had an unusual floating roof form inspired by the Bilbo Baggins hobbit house! Our client took the project forward herself as a self-builder, using Ecotecture for planning and building regulation drawings, RIBA stages 2 to 4 with the option for our availability on an hourly rate in an advisory capacity as work progressed.

Upon completion of the build, our practice architect Jo Saady, revisited our client for her feedback and views on the whole build experiences including what it is like living in a round straw bale house.

JS: What made you think of a straw house?

Client: In discussions with you (the architect) this came up as an option and it fitted well, it says something about my personality.

JS: How do you feel about the house?

Client: I absolutely adore it, every morning I wake up happy.

JS: Do you remember how big it looked when the foundations were dug and how we were amazed at how big it was!

Client: My morning experience is wonderful, I pull my curtains open, sometimes the sheep are looking at me, the sun comes in at the kitchen window and I sit with my breakfast looking at the beautiful view.

JS: What made you construct this yourself?

Client: The challenge, and really I had no choice to keep the costs low. The land was a gift from my parents. I couldn’t have done it without their help. That’s what gave me the whole impetus to build.

JS: How did you feel the planning process went?

Client: That went well in the beginning; the initial permission went through easily. Having a sustainable house really made a difference to the planners, and we had positive pre application advice from the beginning. I also went to all the neighbours and they gave me their support.

JS: What was your worst moment?

Client: The building regulation package had some issues with drains. I couldn’t have the soakaway system because of the poor porosity of the clay soil, so the approved attenuation tank wouldn’t work. In the end we applied for a mains connection which took another six months. I would recommend if you have funds to undertake the soil testing early on in the programme as this would have made the process less stressful. We didn’t do it to keep cost down and this was a mistake.

In the end, the cost was probably the same, as digging out the soakaway would have cost more plus contributed to landfill where as we just needed to dig a long trench down the lane to connect existing mains.

JS: Who did you use for the timber frame?

Client: I used a carpenter called Nigel Last (Sussex Woodland Products). He and his team put the timber frame together, and he subsequently became the project manager. He also did the straw bales. He was a great source for getting funky stuff.

JS: Where did they come from?

Client: A local farm in Balcombe supplied the straw bales, but unfortunately they came from Cheshire. Sadly the kind of dense square bales we needed aren’t available locally! The farm providing the bales had sourced bales before for other straw bale builds.

JS: Did the building being round cause problems?

Client: Not really, except Nigel did say it was ‘interesting’ forming the curved plywood fascias for the roof and the head (wall) plates! I learnt a lot about the terminology. Nigel taught himself on the job, and by watching u tube videos!

JS: How did you source the fittings and what is the main drive for your purchases?

Client: Out of skips and scavenging to keep costs down, but also I used recycled products that otherwise would have landed up in landfill. For example the bathroom sink, caramel brown, came from a skip with a matching toilet in Burgess Hill. Autumn gold is the actual term. The bath came from a refit in a friend’s house, as was the kitchen sink. The butler sink is out of a skip.

Shelving is all off cuts from the build, and the kitchen work tops. The cupboards were made from an art installation in Glastonbury, as was the paint as Nigel works in the summer setting up the Glastonbury festival.

JS: Did you physically build anything yourself?

Client: I helped with the straw bales and stripped the hazel spike that holds the bales together. I also did all the lime washing and painting myself.

JS: Tell me a little a bit about your floors, they look amazing!

Client: Oooh yes. The lounge is recycled floor boards form the village hall, which was demolished and the builders were just chucking them in a skip. The lino in the kitchen is the only new bit as I didn’t have enough floor boards. The bathroom floor is cored wood flooring, slices of wood glued in which came from Nigel’s woods as do the hazel sticks and the cross braces around the perimeter that help hold up the roof.

JS: Are there any changes you had to make during the build?

Client: In order to keep costs down the windows from arched to flat. The original grass roof was changed to a membrane so that I could have rainwater harvesting, which runs to water butts which feed the garden. I also use a bucket to flush the loo. I would have put in rainwater harvesting to the loo but it was too costly.

We had to be very inventive during the build. The window boards are curvy for example, again supplied from Nigel’s woods, the boards are oak.

The window cills are old scaffolding planks that were broken left by the scaffolders so we used them! The internal high windows came from an old barn; the round window comes from a skip.

JS: How long did the build take?

Client: The footings took about six weeks and the actual build took 10 months from this point to moving in.

JS: Did you have to buy any fittings new?

Client: The stove was new, though the slate it sits on was recycled from the house where I grew up.

JS: If you could advise something to someone doing this process what would you say?

Client: Make sure you get a good architect! Seriously I think getting quotes and costings up front is the key to the build. Don’t get stressed as you will get there in the end!

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