Plaster those Walls!

This will be a good news post, which is why we look so happy in the pic to the left. We found an awesome plaster crew. Rusty, a 30 year plaster veteran, has never done straw bale before, so he took our DVD set from Andrew Morrison home and watched it over and over. He even asked Beth to teach his crew how to tie the knots needed to secure the wire mesh when the bale needle sticks it thru the wall. These guys are persistent, exacting and a joy to work with.

Here’s Beth, after dark and in cold weather, filling/stuffing straw into low places in the bedroom wall so it will be smooth and even when finished. I keep telling her how important she is to getting all the work done… and she mumbles “I’m just stubborn – I want it done right” under her breath. What a gal!

Here you can see how much “pre-work” must be done on the walls before they get the three coats of plaster (scratch, brown, finish). Note the multiple layers of mesh and lots of burlap on the curves around the windows. Finally, look at how great the finished wall looks. Even up close, you could not tell that it covers bales of the same stuff that animals sleep on and gardeners use for ground cover.

For lots more pictures of what goes into the (extensive) plastering effort, including the entire building inside a giant tarp envelope, see this link.

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Plumbers and Electricians

The good news is that I (Ted) still have hair. That’s because I haven’t pulled all of it out while trying to find licensed plumbers and electricians who will actually show up! After a small amount of work our first plumber quit. We are still waiting on a corrected bid from the 2nd plumber. After seven different tries, we got an electrician to sign a contract… which was almost 2 months ago, and they haven’t really started yet. But — WE NEED THEM!! In straw bale construction, the wiring must go into the walls before the plaster goes on, and we are plastering now (see next post). This pic is a taste of how creative I have been forced to be so that the wiring can be done in the outside walls after much of the plaster in on. I have had bad dreams about this; I am inventing new ways to wire after plaster; what could go wrong? Don’t ask. 😛

We believe, by faith, that COVID-19, lowest ever interest rates (causing an explosion in new construction) and the unique (weird) features of Chenoweth East won’t stop us from finding the subcontractors we need. The right ones are out there — we just have to find them!

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Straw is an extremely good insulator — our walls will end up being “true” R30, whereas most homes have “sort of” R19 due to being thinner plus less-than-perfect sealing around doors and windows. That said, we knew we needed a heating and cooling system properly sized for the space, because over-sizing it meant the system would inefficiently turn on & off constantly. Both Beth and I love radiant heat (which we will have in the main floors – see a future post), but we will also need cooling. Hence, for several weeks, the picture above shows what happened. The rough-in (except for hooking up the bathroom exhaust fans) is now complete.

See this link for even more HVAC detail.

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Windows and Doors

May we be honest with you? When you build your house … which assumes that your marriage is solid and you are a little bit insane … make sure you install your windows at the right time. Why? Well… let’s back up for a minute. We were all excited over a year ago, picked out some of the best, most long-lasting windows you can buy and had them delivered to our new home. Which had no walls – just a foundation and roof. To protect them, we had them installed, thinking we would have the walls up quickly, the space closed in and we would be able to “condition” it (with space heaters, if need be) during the winter. No. Over a year went by and apparently the casement windows we got don’t like being in the heat and cold. Five of them wouldn’t shut & latch properly (including the one you see above). Nightmare ensued. After a lot of finder-pointing, all the fingers came back to me (Ted) and now I had to fix them. Finally, after weeks of trial and error, I know a lot about installing Pella windows. All but one now latch properly, and I’ll get that one, too.

For the doors, we got smart. A professional Amish carpenter installed them.

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The walls are up!

Inside the great room

Since late July, Beth and our daughter Serena have been working hard and doing a great job installing all the straw bale walls of the main house. They are true artists! Since the bales must be flush with both the outside and the inside toe-ups, they used an electric chainsaw to shape, cut and craft bales to fit around all the posts, squash blocks, cross-bracing, windows, inside wall connectors, etc. They also had to custom re-tie smaller bales to fit in all the non-standard locations as well as the last row right under the OSB forming the top of each wall. There was also the challenge of bales getting wet (tarps blew up during rain) and weeding out the bales that had absorbed too much moisture from the air. Special thanks goes to our 20-something Serena, who did all the grunting with a heavy tamper to make sure the bales were lined up correctly. Click here to see pictures of the walls being built.

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Lots of Progress!

Since our last post in March, so much has happened! First of all, we now have underground power from a pole on our neighbor’s land to a transformer just inside the treeline near our NE porch. It hums… it is definitely on. We still need to get what’s called a “T-pole” — a temporary power box for the subs to power their equipment before the electrician actually installs the service panel. Right now we are using a generator, which has limited wattage. We also have a water line buried under the creek below the main house – as you can see from the video here, that process was something else. Among other tools, the contractor had to rent a pump powered by a diesel engine – which was used to get the creek flow past the place that concrete was being poured into the trench (with the water line in it) under the creek bed.

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Slow Progress

Ninja the kitty on duty

Sometimes, when you work mostly alone, you just need a supervisor. Here’s mine. His name is Ninja and he’s the feral cat who takes care of our workshop/shed. He’s a lovey-dovey and almost always wants hugs and rubs. Except when he wants to wrestle, which can involve claws and teeth, since you are just a bigger kitty like he is, right? (I’ve learned to wrestle with gloves on!) He supervises most anyone working in the yard, in addition to keeping our workshop clear of mice and birds. He’s a hunter, too. And, dogs… did I mention our two dogs? After an initial period of sorting out who was boss, he started thinking he was a dog. They rub noses, sniff the privates, run up to cars and inspect newcomers… as a group. I’ve taken to calling him our puppy-kitty.

Meanwhile, back at the house we are slowly building in the winter when it is cold and often wet and muddy:

  • Cross bracing continues. Every set must be custom manufactured, and sometime I must get very creative in order to get it installed, since they should have gone in before the roof was framed (but I didn’t realize it).
  • Scaffolding – can’t stack and plaster the outside walls without a safe, solid place to stand. I’ve owned this scaffolding for over 20 years, knowing I would use it one day and am thankful to have it.
  • Straw bales – the horse farms got me on this one. I had two suppliers last fall and thought I could put bales in a large haybarn we aren’t using… but then decided the mice would be a problem during the months of storage (they cut the strings with their teeth when they burro in to make nests). Recently I checked back with my two farmers – no straw for sale anywhere. There is straw available – in Ontario! I continue to search around here. If you pray, say a prayer that we can find some soon…

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YOU can help

Some 30 years ago Beth and I began dreaming about building our own home. First, it was out of rammed earth – but that was for the desert. Then it was underground – but water leaking in was a problem. Finally we began researching straw bales, and realized:

  • SB homes are quiet, beautiful and incredibly fireproof
  • They have a “natural core” – wood, straw and stone
  • They help the environment by sequestering carbon in the walls
  • Houses very similar to SB have been lived in for 1000+ years
  • They are ideal for energy conservation (super insulated) and can be taken completely off-grid using a combination of HW & PV solar

In fact, our goal for Chenoweth East is a home that will bless our descendants and others for 300+ years. Will you consider helping us build it? Here is what we offer:

  • The chance to help build a Natural Core home, even for an hour or two, which we believe will last for centuries
  • Free drinks and snacks, a shelter to sit and rest in the shade and the chance to learn new skills
  • Every helper gets a small gift to take home, plus a permanent record of their participation in a special book which will stay with the house

If you can come for an hour or a day, it doesn’t matter – your support is what counts. If you’re interested, click here for a way to contact us.

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Cross-bracing “fun”

First finished cross-brace
Finished cross-brace

Normal houses use plywood sheets at the corners to prevent the frame from racking in a high wind… but you can’t do that in a strawbale house, because the plywood traps moisture which will rot the straw. The answer is what you see here. As it turned out, our consultant saw them in the plans & decided there had to be another way — they were too “over-the-top”. His crews were not available to do the job either. That’s when I (Ted) called the engineer who had stamped the plans & wondered if they were really necessary. Yes, they were, and our architect confirmed it, even sending me pics of other SB houses under construction. The only solution left was for yours truly to manufacture them from scratch and then install all 20 pairs. Here’s what was involved:

  • Beat out heavy steel strap (to straighten it) and weld threaded rods on one end
  • Figure out how to install anchors and reinforcing strap over top of the existing ceiling beams (this should have been done before the roof & 2nd floor were put on – I’ll know better for the annex); in a few cases I had to create custom anchors
  • Climb all over the place on multiple ladders getting everything attached
  • Hire the framing crew to come out & hammer in 1000+ 16d nails to hold the straps and anchors in place, so that when I tighten the straps just before installing the bales, they will stiffen the frame to spec

If you are wondering why there aren’t more SB houses in your area, this may be one of the reasons.

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Roofing in progress
Roofers at work

As the weather got colder, it was clear that we would need to wait until spring to start installing the strawbale walls. Our more immediate need was to get the final roof on… which became it’s own challenge. From Nov. thru Jan., this is what we have been working on:

  • We had always wanted a metal roof, but after much soul-searching and research, decided it would take too long and cost too much. Beth opted for the bluest shingle roof she could find, and it went on in December on some of the few sunny days we had.
  • Instead of a metal roof, Beth decided to build her dream kitchen. Yes, there are only strawbales stacked in the space now, but great things are planned. She has hired a consultant and is getting custom bids now. It’s going to have lots of blue, and be awesome 😉
  • T-Mobile has a cell tower next to our woods, and the closest transformer is beside it. Getting a power line to our home has been a challenge, involving the neighbor’s law firm & KU to get an easement. No trench yet – it’s taken this long just to get permission!
  • Fortunately, we will be able to get fixed wireless internet from the same company we have now … but I will need to build another tower at the end of our driveway.
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Sept. & Oct.

The Lady and her future house
Beth surveys the progress

We’ve been working hard since the last post — and been too busy to update this site, unfortunately. We’ve made progress, though there have been ups and downs. The weather has been dry and helpful, and we’ve tried our best to take advantage of it. Here are a few of the areas we’ve been working on:

  • More framing from every angle – this will give you detailed views of framing at a later stage – note how tall the first floor walls will be
  • Let the grass grow! … and here are shots of the Bobcat smoothing out the ground around the main and annex foundations plus a pic of the grass growing … in the late fall. We weren’t sure it would, but are now very thankful it is there.
  • Installing windows – in a normal house, these would be installed after the walls are covered, but in straw bale, they go in first. To protect the straw from leakage, they must be triple flashed – that’s the black edges you see around the windows
  • Straw & Toe Ups – all the outside walls of straw sit on 2 rows of treated 4×4 timber, which then have closed cell foam insulation sprayed between them. The insulation is strong – you can stand on it – to support the weight of the walls. Note the straw stacked inside. Unfortunately, we lost about 1/4 of this first load to water damage because of the leaky roof (no shingles yet) and wind blowing in rain. In addition, we loaded a lot of the remaining bales up to take back, because their water content (above 15%) was too high to use for walls.
  • Water & power – can’t move in without them, and here are some shots of the water line trench between the water meter (now installed at the road) and the house. The power line (pics when we dig it) has been a whole different story – we’re still waiting on a neighbor to give us an easement across his buffalo pasture so we can connect to the closest transformer. For some complicated reasons, his lawyer is now involved … sigh. At least we don’t need permission from the squirrels and chipmunks…
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Mid to Late August

The “update list of links” idea is working well for timeliness, so this page will take Chenoweth East thru the end of August. Join us on the journey! We love visitors, so if you are in the area (see Maps, above) and want to visit, send a note to, or leave a message at 502-633-9529:

  1. Carport and back veranda – beams are up!
  2. Delivering trusses – and almost 30 min. sitting on a busy KY state highway because the driver couldn’t figure out how to get up the hill!
  3. Truss installation – the crane that did this cost us $700 for about 3 hours and could lift 120 ft. in the air
  4. Framing, framing, framing – and only one of the crew speaks English, and he isn’t always there
  5. Main roof started – and it rained, and water stood on the subfloor and … when will the roof be complete?
  6. Roof almost covered – the gray liner is waterproof, so we can wait awhile before installing the metal.
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Update in Pictures – June to Early August

Now that we are in the thick of actually building, there doesn’t seem to be much time to do the posts! So, for a picture overview of progress, here are links to different folders that progressively bring us up to early August. Enjoy!

  1. Digging the foundation – high lift and Bobcat – early June
  2. Building material – the wheat field near I-64 where we will probably get some of our straw bales – late June
  3. Annex footers – the lowest part of the foundation, which is on solid rock for the annex – mid July
  4. Main footers – includes video of the giant concrete pump truck – mid July
  5. Annex foundation walls – formed and poured on the footers – mid July
  6. Main foundation walls – formed and poured the same day, but footers buried in dirt this time – mid July
  7. Legal immigrant from CA – and a great volunteer, I might add 🙂 – mid July
  8. Back filling and the rocks – the Bobcat in action, both filling in against the annex foundation AND carefully setting aside Beth’s rocks 😉 – mid July
  9. Guest shelter – will have a roof, sides, a table and chairs, lighting at night, cool drinks, snacks, etc. — for the volunteers who work with straw & plaster – to rest their bones now and then… – July thru Sept.
  10. A beautiful driveway – it’s a little steep at the crossing, but the trees along the way are so wonderful – July
  11. Building stuff – here’s all the kinds of things which go into a house – late July
  12. Main house floor – the foundation finally gets a floor on it! – early August
  13. First floor framing – the post and beam frame goes up (except for the utility and master bath, which are stick framed) – early August
  14. Main 2nd floor – TGI, beams and subfloor, plus some amazing views of the trees all around – early August
  15. Main 2nd walls – most of the walls are up on the 2nd, and getting ready for the roof rafters – early August
  16. Main porches, shaping up – giant posts and beams make the back veranda outside the master bedroom look amazing, plus the 2nd ceiling rafters are in place – early August
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High Lift and Hoe Ram

Here is the hoe ram in action, breaking up the rock which is in the way of the footer for the annex foundation… It is a Bobcat lift with a special attachment on the front. In case you’re wondering, the ram itself is powered by hydraulics.

Here’s the highlift in action clearing the site for the main house.

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Rock & basement

In the last few days we have been buying lots of #3 rock, plus something called “crusher run” by the dump truck load. Because of the rain, it has been going on the road and … sinking :-O Obviously, this is not a plan, except that we’re 6 weeks behind schedule, so it’s … the plan. As you can see from the photos, we have a very rocky driveway right now. At least, it works, and it will have to work in the near future because massively heavy CONCRETE trucks will show up soon, and there will be no giant helicopters to fly the concrete to the foundation forms. It has to be carried by the mixer trucks and poured in through a chute.

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