I’ve always loved tiny houses—even before the concept was popularized and the term was coined. I “built” my first tiny house when I was about four, converting my red wagon into a pioneer-style covered wagon. Of course, it took a great deal of imagination to see the cardboard box construction as a functioning Conestoga, but at age four I had plenty of that.
Fast-forward about half a century. My husband and I returned to the family land and started a tiny, licensed cheese dairy, Pholia Farm Creamery. We built a small log cabin as our main dwelling and put most of the lumber dollars into a large, well-functioning dairy barn with a multi-purpose space occupying the loft.
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I had originally envisioned the loft serving as an art studio in which to continue my printmaking pursuits, but the realities of life on a dairy farm rapidly quenched, or rather diverted, that dream. The loft now serves as what we only partly jokingly call “the employee lounge.” It’s where our family along with a steady stream of interns and WWOOFers (members of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) cook, eat together, watch movies and relax.
While the loft is a great place for gathering, the rotating members of this farm all need places to sleep and get a little bit of privacy. Vern and I have our little cabin, our daughter has a small travel trailer (that we lived in for several years while we built our house), and paying farm guests have a renovated 1970 Airstream. But what about the lovely, hard-working interns? I had drawn up a plan for a small, timber-framed building when it dawned on me that this might be my last chance to work with straw bale construction.
In keeping with local regulations, structures under 200 square feet do not require permitting. So I chose a 12-by-12-foot footprint (144 square feet) that, when closed in by straw bales, created a space of about 81 square feet. No doubt about it, this would be a tiny house! In addition to making it small, I wanted to make it with the least amount of materials possible, make it so we could move it, and make it charming and quite comfortable.
The first step toward minimizing materials and making it somewhat movable was to avoid the use of concrete for the foundation. But when you are working with straw bales, they must be kept dry, so a raised foundation of some sort is a must.
We laid a good bed of gravel and prepared the space by packing it with a hand tamper and by driving the tractor over it from every direction possible. Then we sprinkled the pad with a good soaking of water and repeated the packing. Nine salvaged railroad timbers, or ties, were put in place to elevate the floor. The level in all directions was checked to make sure they were flat and even.
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I chose railroad timbers for their solid construction and resistance to rot—and, of course, because they are recycled. In our area of the Pacific Northwest, there are still many century-old farmhouses sitting on a foundation of old-growth timber beams, and while this approach and ours would never be allowed by code, it works.
Next we laid two courses of medi-um-density fiberboard (MDF) over the railroad ties. We placed the second course overlapping the seams of the first, to create a solid, non-sagging surface. MDF is quite inexpensive for its strength. While I am not keen on the amount of glues used in making it, I find the fact that it is made from wood bits that used to be burned quite appealing.
When stained, it is also rather attractive, so I had both a subfloor and a finished floor all in one! We used screws for all of the subfloor work, partly for strength and also because they could be removed one day without ruining the materials. Just in case we ever want to move the structure. The 12-by-12-foot footprint meant zero cutting waste of the MDF sheets.
The Final Straw
Most straw bales used for construction are tightly packed, quite heavy and tied with three strings. We wanted to use the straw we had in our barn—beautiful oat straw baled with two strings by our local hay farmers, Barry and Kathy Hoffman. Because these bales are a bit loose, light in weight, not exactly the same size, and I didn’t want to have to restring any of them (as is often done in straw-bale construction), I chose to lay the bales out and then build a frame that they would fit within. It is a bit of a backwards approach, but also quite organic and unforced.
The frame also needed to provide all of the load-bearing support due to the nature of the bales, so I placed framing for the windows and the door as close to the center of each side as possible. The framing extends from the floor to the top plate, providing plenty of strength for the roof.
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The opening for the front door was quite wide, to accommodate the bale lengths, so to provide support and add visual interest, our WWOOFer at the time, Thera (also the first resident of the straw-bale house), and another helper peeled two fir logs harvested from a dying tree on our property.
These columns closed in the opening nicely, making it fit a beautiful heavy, wood door we found at a salvage shop. We think it might have come from an old school because of the size, room number and the profanity scratched into the wood. I spent the same amount of money that I did on the door ($60) for a hand-forged iron door pull that I just couldn’t resist.
Once the framing was done, we drove rebar rods through the bales to stabilize them a bit, and filled gaps and corners with hand-packed straw. Because the straw bales are serving as insulation and are not load bearing, we needed to provide sheathing for the outside—something to keep the walls from moving askew, known as shearing. For this we used 3/8-inch plywood seconds, or “blows.” These are inexpensive and not necessarily pretty, but once stained, they have a rustic look that fits well with the structure.
The front of the house faces due south, so we sloped the gabled roof to face that way, placing the gable-end window, a leaded glass fan window that I had been carting around for at least a decade just waiting for the chance to use it, to allow morning light in (hopefully helping to awaken the interns!). We added a nice front eve to give protection from the weather and lend an old western bunkhouse look to the structure.
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To frame the porch roof, we used mostly scrap wood that had been milled from beetle-killed ponderosa pine here on our property. Since the pine was not considered “structural,” I placed the boards much closer together and did not allow them to span the same distance that would have been possible with the right lumber.
Finishing The Walls
I had planned on plastering the bales with a straw-mud plaster, but it became apparent that they were just too loose in construction to ever allow that method to succeed. We had a few sheets of thin, clear polycarbonate lying around, so I used those as a wall “finish,” simply drilling holes and zip-tying them to the strings on the bale.
This keeps the straw from shedding and the whole place smells great, but it’s certainly not a good candidate for candles or any open flame!
The same salvage shop from which the front (and only) door was obtained also provided three old windows. I re-glazed and painted them and then had to change the window opening size to fit. It certainly would have been smarter to buy the windows first. We had a stack of 1-by-3-inch and 1-by-4-inch cedar boards left over from our barn that I used to give the look of board-and-batten construction on the outside of the building.
Adding A Loft
Initially, I envisioned the bunkhouse, as we now call it, to have two beds and an open feeling, but when Thera (the previously mentioned pole-peeling intern) returned to our farm a couple of years later, she brought her boyfriend with her. We were so thrilled to have both of these hard-working young folks that I remodeled the interior to include a loft that would hold their queen mattress.
So now the space is a bit more closed in, or cozy if you will, but is much more functional. And after all, isn’t that what a tiny house is about? We also added a patio and built a picnic table for an outdoor dining and cooking space, and next on my list is building a sawdust toilet privy off the back corner. The initial cost of the structure, not including the loft and patio, and what we had lying around was about $1,200.
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Our work here on the farm has changed the way we use a house. Our houses here, whether the 650-square-foot cabin or 100-square-foot (including the loft) straw-bale hut, are places to sleep, relax and be alone. The farm is where we work, play and exhaust ourselves. A small dwelling provides all our needs. Next year, I plan to revisit my pre-school dreams of a covered wagon by building a gypsy-style caravan, or Vardo, on the bed of an old 16-foot car hauler trailer that we have. Incidentally, the old trailer, like my first wagon, is red.
Tiny House Materials List
- (9) 8-foot railroad ties
- (9) 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-1/2-inch medium-density fiberboard sheets
- (12) 12-foot 2x4s for framing
- (8) 8-foot 2x4s for windowsills and window framing
- (11) 1/4-inch plywood seconds for sheathing
- Approximately 25-35 bales of straw
- Rebar for stabilizing walls
- (1) 16-foot-by-2-inch-by-8-inch board for
the ridge beam
- (18) 8-foot 2x6s for roof framing (Does not include porch, but does include overhang
and gable-end eaves.)
- (2) 8-foot 2x6s for outrigger to support
- (10-12) sheets 1/2-inch to 5/8-inch roof underlayment
- Roofing material of choice
Note: This list can be adjusted depending on window and door size and count. Many materials may be substituted as long as strength is provided.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.