Nestled somewhere in the Rockies where the days have sharp edges and nights are pierced by starlight, a rather lovely lady is building a rather lovely mud and straw house with a lot of rather lovely people. The backdrop is pretty impressive too, what with grass-swathed mountains plunging into roaring rivers. Idaho. Hmm.
Kay La Bella’s gorgeous little cottage is interesting not least because it’s balecob. Don’t know what balecob is? I admit, I wasn’t too sure either. It’s a hybrid between straw bale and cob, where the advantages of both cob (structural strength) and straw bale (high insulation) are used to create load-bearing structures. See the links at the bottom for more details on that.
But there was another thing about this project that caught my eye, and that was the obvious good feeling and community spirit. As soon as Kay joined our special Facebook clan and I began following her build, I was struck by the generosity of her character. She honestly never has a bad word to say about anyone. Needless to say when it came to building her fabulous little balecob cottage, she seemed to be continuously surrounded by smiling, hardworking assistants, a lot of whom seemed to sport plenty of well-defined muscle tissue:)
But why Idaho? And why balecob?
“There are no building codes in the county, that’s why I bought there, so I didn’t have to get permits or have stamped architectural drawings,” explains Kay, who really has found a stunning spot. And I tell you when I read her comment, and saw the rugged escarpments and rushing rivers, I had half a mind to go buy there too.
So how big is the house?
“I didn’t realize when I bought the property that there was a size restriction. The total footprint had to be no bigger than 900 square feet. The little subdivision I am a part of had that one “rule”. So the house is about 750 square feet including a small loft, and a to-be root cellar in the back is about 200 square feet,” Kay told me. For those of us in Europe and many parts of Asia, that sounds pretty flipping spacious.
Cat Taylor and friends
Kay did a lot of research and prep work before starting her house. She first tried out cob with an oven, and a shed. So by the time she came to the house, which is always a daunting endeavour, she had some mud skills at the ready.
She also hired help strategically, which is something I do too, and can be a really good idea. You can really learn from specialists.
“I am so blessed with good friends and family, and they all helped with the grunt work of building the last of the stem wall. We thought we had it done for Cat Taylor so we could start with the straw bales. Ha! She got here and we discovered we needed a whole other layer of stone for the wall,” laments Kay.
Cat Taylor is a well-known natural builder who runs the beautiful Natural Building Organisation, which is far more than just a natural building school. Cat also works with horses for special needs and veterans suffering PTSD.
“I had hired Cat to come out when another of her workshops in Colorado cancelled. She didn’t really do a workshop with me, I just paid her to come and share her knowledge. But, the friends that showed up did get to work with her. She got us to the point of placing the posts and setting some window and door frames, and then left us with instructions on completing the beams, roof, root cellar roof and balecob infill to follow. I was a bit nervous when she left, having not had her here to get us started with what she knows of bale/cob, but we were very successful. She and so many other resources were there coaching us on, as well as a bit of intuitive knowing.”
And honestly Kay has done such a sterling job. She and the team managed to get the exterior complete by winter, which is a big deal.
How did Kay and friends make this house?
Long-time Mud Home readers will be getting used to the order of events by now. As always we start with the rubble trench foundation, upon which was built a nice stone stem wall. The rubble trench is your drainage (see more on that here). The stem wall keeps your mud/straw house off the wet ground.
The hardest part of the build
There’s always one bit of the build that really tests you. It might be the roof. It might be the plaster or the finishing. For Kay and her family it was that rubble trench and stem wall.
“The rock for the rubble trench needed to be clean, because its main purpose is to keep water drained from the house in case of a huge rain. So the trench needed to slope away from the house, have a layer of clean rock size 2-3 inches at the bottom with the drain pipe, then a layer of clean bigger rock 3-4 inches on top, all tamped down as we went,” explains Kay. “I had so much rock! But we needed to sort it into sizes, put it into 5 gallon buckets, dump it on a screen over the wheelbarrow and hose the dirt off to clean it, then dump it in the trench. It was painstaking and seemed to take forever! It was a huge challenge, and none of us had done anything like it before. But I did my homework. The rocks were mostly all laid by hand.”
Post and beam frame
Once the foundation was laid, a post and beam structure was erected.
Next came the balecob infilling. As you can see the bales were laid on the stem wall, and everything was ‘cobbed’ into place.
“Cat Taylor convinced me to do bale/cob, but she suggested to cut the bales in half lengthwise so we would have approximately 9” wide bales instead of 18,” says Kay. And that was a great idea to save space (and bales).
“The supports for the roof are lodge pole pine rafters about 5-6 inches in diameter set with a 24 in space between them. They are then covered with 4 x 8 sheets of plywood or OSB. The main roof has a kind of tar paper vapor barrier on it (not sure how natural that is),” says Kay.
I think it’s really hard to get away without some sort of non-natural water barrier in the roof. I mean yes, you can forego it, but you usually end up with leaks. After the vapor barrier came the metal sheeting, which they screwed into place.
“The smaller side roof that will cover my ‘root cellar’ also has the plywood nailed to rafters, then sheets of cardboard to cover the nail heads so as not to puncture the rubber pond liner that was the final layer, before dirt (which I still need to add to, for a living roof).”
This will be Kay’s permanent home. She came to Idaho from Colorado to escape the crowds and help her daughter with her new coffee roasting business. There’s only one downside to Idaho.
“I truly desired a longer growing season. I love to garden, and grow my own food,” says Kay. And sitting slap bang on Rapid River, she enjoys free irrigation water that is gravity fed from an irrigation canal about 100 yards above her property. Perfect for gardening and fruit trees. Yes, you might notice I’m rather taken with this property:))
Kay’s balecob house isn’t finished yet, so I’m going to cover it again next year. In the meantime a big round of applause to a brave and lovely woman creating her own gorgeous world away from the madding crowds.
Things to take from this project:
1. Hiring help strategically can make all the difference between happy success, and exhausted failure. Some people do get rather into the Lone Ranger mindset in building and see any kind of instruction as a sign of failure. In truth, failure more often comes by not enlisting help at the correct times.
2. What goes around comes around. When you’re generous and see the best in people like Kay, people are more likely to want to work with you and help you.
3. Some counties in Idaho have no building codes. Oooh.
For a super step-by-step article on how to build balecob, go to Mother Earth News:
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