The Straw House Blog


Rube Goldberg came to our house

Well you should see our mechanical room now. We have great soaring pieces of pipe, a panoply of pumps and pressure tanks all humming and burbling in their own ways. Evidently Simon ran into some trouble on Friday as the solar hot water system is still in pieces. Nothing involving fluids seems to go well at our place.

Here’s the way the system works. There is a submersible pump in our well which is 53 feet deep. The well controller runs off its own 48 volt line direct from the batteries. The pump feeds into a 30 gallon pressure tank which feeds our domestic water.

The hot water tank is actually a heat exchanger with two sets of coils. Both coils are closed loop sub-systems. The lower set of coils is fed from the solar hot water system. A glycol/water mixture runs up through the panels and then back down through the heat exchanger. The pump for that loop is fed from a panel tacked onto the side of the main panels. We call it the “pimple panel”.

The upper loop is fed from the propane boiler, which is capable of producing 140,000 BTUs. The upper loop heats both the domestic water and the radiant floor system. There is an aqua-stat on the side of the tank, if the solar hot water system hasn’t pre-heated the water sufficiently, the aqua-stat makes a request to the boiler and it starts to circulate its glycol/water mixture through the top loop. The radiant floor system is controlled through a pair of thermostats in the house and a pair of aqua-stats on the return side of the floor loops. If the ambient air temperature inside the house drops, or if the return mix temperature drops too low the boiler will fire and the floor pumps will start.

If it sounds complicated don’t worry, it’s much much worse when you look at it.



Tour Day

We really didn’t get much work done today. Mom did some sanding and Dad and I worked on the drywall. Just after lunch friends from Toronto came up, with Joanne. David and I worked together over the last year or so, and he came with his wife Angela and super cute daughter Veronica. We toured them through the house and around the land. A good time was had by all. Seeing parents like them (ie good calm together parents) gives me hope that this whole kid thing will be OK. Veronica loved the dogs and had an altogether splendid time wandering about the the land exploring. She was a treat.

As we were walking back to the house Steven and Laurie pulled up with their wee daughter Malaika. Malaika is just two months old. She basically slept the whole time, but even so she held her own in the cuteness department.

Then they left, and the Morton’s came buy. We bought the land from Hector Isaac Thorton Morton. His nephew is Anson Morton. Anson’s sons Randy and Kevin farm the front 25 acres of our land. They live just up the land, you can actually see their place from ours out the front door. Anson told us stories of the area and his family. His father and uncle built the barn on our land. His father was born in the house on the 100 behind us. It was a nice visit.

But we got nothing done this afternoon. Jo took some pictures though.


A block of time

Happy times for the next week or so, I launched two sites yesterday, the RCMP Veterans Association Store and a stub page for Scott Morris Architects full site to come soon. I’m taking the next 5 days off to work on the house, next week Jo and I have our first appointment with the doctor in Peterborough. This is our temporary doctor, she’s helping us only until the baby is born, then we’re SOL. The doctor situation outside of Toronto is really bad.

Pete and Tina are in the house again, applying the final coat of plaster to the interior walls. We’re mixing the plaster with white marble dust, it should look pretty cool. Another nice thing about working with Pete and Tina is the music. Music is delicate balancing act in the house, the trick is to find stuff that is enjoyable and good to work too, but doesn’t offend my parents. They’re pretty accepting of most light country, acid jazz, and light rock type music, and Paul Simon. We’re starting to get a bit tired of those albums. So after my Dad left today we threw on the new White Stripes, Elephant, which seriously kicks ass. After that David Holmes’ Bow Down to the Exit Sign. Both great albums to work with.

This week we also have one group of my parent’s friends coming through on Friday and Joanne’s whole family comes up to celebrate her birthday. Somehow I don’t think we’re going to get a bunch of work done those days.

Pete was saying that some of the straw bale house owners he knows have gotten so sick of the constant stream of visitors they have started charging admission. Another house only allows visits one day a month. I wondering if we’re going to get that frustrated. We get about one visitor per weekend, usually neighbours, who we enjoy meeting, but occasionally we get strangers who’ve just heard of the house and are curious. Those people we’re a bit less happy about. We’ve also learned that for most people, a No Trespassing sign is pretty meaningless.



12 weeks?! Maybe not.

Good day for scheduling today. Most of the appliances got delivered, and, BIG NEWS, the shower base is going to be delivered tomorrow. It was supposed to be 12 weeks but turned out to be more like 6. Once we have the base in place we can order the glass and fibreglass the back wall. We may not have to bathe in the bathtub after all.

Pete and Tina continued cleaning, and fixing up the interior walls. They stucco’d one section, and they hope to get two sections done per day. Their tools for smoothing the cement walls are quite incredible. The first tool is basically a brick with grooves cut along the bottom and attached to a handle. That sucker really works your arms (or so Tina tells me). The second is a flat sander with carbide teeth set at about a #10 grit. And people wonder if the coating on the bale walls is strong enough.

Meanwhile Dad, Phil and I hung drywall on the back wall ceiling - which, incidentally, is a difficult and seriously crappy job. Later I put the last coat of mud on the kitchen walls, and right before I left I applied another coat to the back bathroom. Then I ran out of mud (oh, darn) and had to stop (drat).

Pictures? You want pictures? Fine.



Happy Birthday Jo

Yep, today’s her birthday. I’m not telling how old.

Pete and Tina got two sections done today, they’re back on Monday. Phil brought Joanne up, helped put up one piece of drywall, helped bring in the shower base, and then had to leave to go to a job interview. He got the job, but it’s a night gig so he says he can still come out and help us. We need the muscle.

For some reason Dad really wanted to have the kitchen lights up in time for the tour today. To get the lights up they had to be rewired, which involved cutting off the old leads and soldering on new wires. We removed the metal rods and hung the lights from the new wires. They look amazing, and we’ll leave them up for tomorrow, then take them back down to protect the glass.

The tour took up a good portion of the afternoon, so we didn’t really get much work done. Everybody seemed quite impressed with the house and the land.



A Day of Adventures

...and more tours. Glen and Ron did a huge clean up job in the morning and Donna and I joined to help. The place looked fantastic, and our plan to move in a few weeks didn’t seem so crazy. Just as Glen and Ron were unwrapping the fridge and getting it ready to plug in, my Mom and Dad arrived (Anna and Nick) for the birthday/Mother’s day celebration. Then it was more tours as Ron and Donna’s neighbours Jim and Michelle stopped by with their kids and some friends.

My sisters and their families arrived a short while later and wandered around exclaiming “It’s so much bigger than it looks on the web!” After a great lunch Glen and Ron took Karen and Bob and their boys Tommy, Andrew and Matthew and Kim and Gene’s daughter Claire on their first adventure past the gravel pit and up the big, back hill. Then they headed through the west bush, along the logging road to the fields and back along the Porcupine trail where they discovered the “mushy, trampoline” part, where you walk on cedar tree roots. Donna, Mom, Dad Kim and Gene and I stayed and played with their adorable younger daughter Kate. After cake and some wonderful birthday/Mother’s Day gifts, I took the three boys and Claire on the next adventure - over to see the dead porcupine. Then it was back along the Porcupine trail.

Altogether it was a fun day with gorgeous spring weather. At the end of the day Glen put the shelves in fridge. It really started feeling like a house with the fridge in place with food in it! 

Somehow in all the confusion, pictures got taken.



Lazy Sunday

Not a whole bunch to report today. Jo and my mom went to a baby shower for my cousin, Dad and I stayed at the house. Ian came down and with his help we managed to get the last of the drywall up in the back room. We had lunch and Ian and I went out for a nice long walk. It was a beautiful day, sunny, clear, and perfect temperature.

We have the fridge hooked up and running now. The fridge is the biggest electrical load in just about anybody’s home. When it’s running the fridge presents a load of 4 amps. Right now we’re holding steady with what we are generating off the solar panels, that includes the use of various lights and power tools. We’re producing about 50 amp hours per day. By my calculations (inexperienced and rusty) that means we’re generating 2.4 kilowatts per day (50 amps X 48 volts). Please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong. The wind generator will be some very nice icing on that cake.


Something new every day

It’s a cliche but everyday I’m at the house I learn something. Today Pete was teaching me some better stuccoing skills. We were filling in cracks on the walls, as well as the gaps where the straw/stucco settled over the winter. Once the cracks and gaps are filled we can start applying the white marble stucco mixture. I’m hoping to help with that tomorrow, and learn some super smooth stucco skills.

Jo and Mom spent the afternoon priming various walls, Dad did some electrical work, wiring up the back room electrical outlets. We also took down the kitchen lights, to protect them from accidental… collision.

Tina has fallen in love with our dog bath. A while back we decided to have the dog bath serve dual use as our utility sink. We had it plumbed with a service box that includes a hot and cold water tap, connected with a Y-hose. This set-up allows us to fill buckets, clean tools, and bathe dogs. I suspect Pete’s gonna get a request to build one for Tina real soon.

Here are some things we have learned so far, maybe they can help others:

  1. You cannot plan enough. Check, then check again. It’s forgetting the little things, then having to go back and fix them that really eats into your time.
  2. Buy the big box. We started with a 50 pound box of 3” spiral nails. Figured we’d end up with leftovers. Bought a 25, innumerable small boxes, and then another 25. We should have bought a second 50. We’re going through the same thing with drywall mud.
  3. The lowest quote is rarely the best. Find the best people, hire them. Use your quotes as a reference, and to make sure everybody’s price is in line. In every case when we have hired solely based on price we’ve been sorry.
  4. There is absolutely no limit whatsoever to the varieties of awful smelly things that a work site dog can find to roll in on 100 acres. Two weeks ago Gator rolled in something so foul it made your eyes water when he got close. Get a hose plumbed ASAP.
  5. Unless you have tested them, the wires are live.
  6. Some retailers have credit cards that save money on your first order. If you time things right you can use the card to save on a big purchase. If we had used such a card for our insulation purchase we’d have saved around $600.00.
  7. The plans are never complete enough.

Today, we took pictures, imagine that.



A Message from Your Pregnant Correspondent

Joanne here again. It was another busy day as we try to get things done before the big move (now confirmed to our landlord as May 25). Pete and Tina worked on the final coat of stucco. Glen has become quite the skilled dry waller (but if anyone asks for his help on this he will deny all knowledge of drywalling or his repetitive stress injuries will suddenly flare up) and after working on the back bathroom/storage room he learned some more about stuccoing from Pete and Tina. Donna and I finished priming the utility room. She helped Ron with the tub base and I put some Tremclad on the metal around the newly installed shower base (don’t worry Karen, I wore my respirator).

That is both the curse and the blessing of being pregnant while working on the house. It’s nice to take more breaks, but it’s a bit frustrating when so much still needs to get done before we move in. Although it doesn’t exactly break my heart that I won’t be able to move the heavy boxes….

One of the biggest challenges we’re going to have is getting the rest of the beams and posts sanded before we move. It’s a time-consuming job and we can’t do it while we’re painting or while Pete and Tina are stuccoing. My dad offered to come out to sand more beams which will definitely help, but ideally it would be good to do the posts with 120 grit because they’re still pretty rough.

Tomorrow I need to drive along Morton Line and find the Kennedy’s. They stopped in at the house one day when Ron was there and in the course of conversation asked about how I was going to get to work in Toronto. Apparently there are a few people who car pool to the Oshawa Go Station and they wondered if I’d like to join them, which, of course, I would. 

I did want to add another point to the last entry about the things we’ve learned. Always start something new in less visible places. Especially if you’ve never done it before. We first tried drywalling in the bathroom (where it will be seen the most). We should have started in the laundry/dog bath area and done the bathroom once we had a better idea of how to do it.

You don’t get to see me in my Darth Vadar respirator because I took all the pictures today. (my first successful pictures link!)



More progress

It rained most of the day. Which in our case is good and bad. Good because it made the house more humid which helps the stucco. We were getting some pretty bad cracking and crinkling on the freshly stucco’d walls, part of the reason for this could be that the walls are so dry that they are pulling the moisture out of the stucco mixture too quickly. Bad because we depend on the sun for our power.

The wall that we stucco’d yesterday had to get a re-coating of lime today to fill in the cracking and crazing. Pete and Tina went over the whole thing, Tina with her ‘jet pack’ soaking the wall down and Pete spreading the lime down super thin.

We got the back bathroom (storage room for now) primed and set up the grey shelves. That enabled us to clear out the back room and move the saw and other tools out of the front part of the house. Maybe now we can keep the level of dirt and sawdust down a bit in the front room. Two weeks to move date.

Here’s the current to do list:

  • Paint kitchen and bathroom walls (and bathroom ceiling), both have already been primed.
  • Conduit and main house electrical and phone lines.
  • Door and window trim.
  • Caulk/foam all remaining door and window edges.
  • Fibreglass shower back wall, order shower stall glass, door, and all hardware.
  • Measure for kitchen cabinets, get measurements to Gene, cut and build cabinets.
  • Fix exhaust pipes where they pass through roof above bathroom.
  • Get stove & dishwasher hooked up (dishwasher not yet delivered).
  • Clean.

That’s the list for moving in.