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A Straw Bale House in Datil, New Mexico — positive, low cost construction

By Carol Pittman

Last updated on Friday, January 03, 2003

The Kanely strawbale house in Datil, New Mexico.
The Kanely strawbale house in Datil, New Mexico.
Alternative life style, alternative housing:  Close your eyes and the picture you conjure up will probably be Venice Beach, Southern California, 1972.

But this is the 90s. Alternative housing has moved east. As a matter of interest, there are several examples in New Mexico. The straw bale house is one.

In Datil, Dennis Kanely lives with his wife in a completed straw bale house they built themselves with the help of two part-time workers.

So right off the bat you ask, "Really? That's all the labor required?" Kanely declares it's so. He and his wife put up two outside walls in eight hours. The overall building time from start to finish was about five months.

Kanely's house differs slightly from other straw bale houses in that its design resembles that of a log cabin. Kanely modified the design to accommodate the straw bales, keeping the beam and post supports. The roof is supported by this structure while the straw bales were used to fill in the walls.

Two hundred and eighty bales were used to build the house. At a cost of $2.65 a bale, the appeal becomes apparent. In addition to requiring less labor to build than a conventional house, straw bale construction is less costly.

Kanely estimates the overall building cost is $27.00 a square foot for do-it-yourselfers as compared to $50.00 to $60.00 a square foot using today's conventional building designs and materials. He points out that this cost makes the straw bale house competitive in price with modular homes, with the added advantage that it doesn't lose its value, but appreciates with time.

The positive aspects of straw bale building in terms of cost and labor are considerable. Are there other reasons to use this type of construction? Kanely points out that there is "a warm feeling to the whole house." That remark can be construed a couple of ways. The warmth of the house is enhanced by the 20-inch-thick walls, which provide considerable insulation. The construction technique of covering the inside walls with two coats of concrete followed by two coats of plaster also lends a rustic and homey feeling.

Pinon centerpost inside strawbale house
Pinon centerpost inside strawbale house
People considering straw bale often ask, "What about insects? What about mice? Does anything get into the walls?" Not according to Kanely:   "There's no room for anything to get into and run around. Buy good straw," he says, "dry, uniform bales with a long fiber." (Kanely used barley.) "Stretch wire over the bales, inside and out, then layer two coats of concrete over the wire. Allow time to dry between coats, then add a third coat of concrete to the outside and plaster to the inside. The result is sealed walls that don't crack." Kanely suggested spraying the bales with ammonia before covering to eliminate insects.

Fire danger is nearly non-existent. In ratings, two-hour tests at 1600° yielded damage to plaster with straw burned to the depth of only one inch. One of the most appealing aspects of this house is that it "feels as if it belongs to the earth," to quote Kanely. And indeed, the house does appear to belong in its surroundings, with its warm brown walls that are softly curved and slightly lumpy. Octagonally shaped, the house is reminiscent of a Navajo hogan.

The interior is also of the earth. The center post was once a piñon growing on Kanely' property. Stripped of bark and coated with polyurethane, it soars to a 20-foot ceiling. The beams rise to meet it in the center, with skylights illuminating all. Pet finches and numerous house plants emphasize the feeling that this is the house that nature built.

For readers interested in more details, Kanely offers classes. During one recent weekend, 50 people came to see his house! He feels that young people can benefit by starting small and adding on as needed for a family. Kanely says, "I'd like to see more straw bale construction being done. I love it and I'm more than willing to give the information - I'm not hiding it."

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