We are often asked “How much does a straw bale house cost?” While we’d love to be able to give a simple answer, it’s a lot like being asked “How much does a car cost?” There are so many factors and choices that go into any building that a simple answer would be simplistic.
A custom straw bale home can cost the same to build as custom conventional home if it is well designed and the builders have a good understanding of straw bale details.
The term ‘straw bale building’ refers primarily to the wall system. The wall system of any home usually accounts for only about 15% of the total cost of the house. Then there’s everything else that goes into building any house: a foundation, a roof, windows, doors, electrical, plumbing, heat, etc. So even if somehow the bales and lath and plaster and labor to build the walls were all free, the other 85% of the building would cost about the same as conventional. Consider that the kitchen is the most expensive room in a house to build based entirely on factors other than what the walls are made of. Of course, wise choices to reduce needs and design simpler systems — such as using shelves instead of cabinets, for example — can help reduce these costs.
Labor costs are usually about 40% of the overall cost, so real savings can be achieved if the owners can do some of the work themselves. Straw bale building creates opportunities for dedicated owners to invest sweat equity and save money by performing a range of tasks, from screening sand to more skilled work such as plastering and notching bales. But building a straw bale house is not easier than building a conventional house: building any house is a complex and difficult undertaking requiring specialized knowledge in many areas. It is important to be realistic about how much work one can and should do oneself.
Rumors of straw bale houses built for $40 or $60 per square foot are exciting but often misleading. Many of the incredibly inexpensive projects we hear about were built by professional builders who had been saving leftover building materials for years and whose considerable (skilled) labor was not factored into the cost of building their straw bale house. Also, these projects were often built in rural areas with relaxed building codes with few seismic requirements. It is not impossible to build an affordable straw bale home but, sadly, they are not dirt cheap, especially here in Southern California.
It would be wonderful if straw bale homes could be built for a few thousand dollars by anyone willing to pick up a bale but, unfortunately, it’s simply not true. A safe and permitted straw bale building will cost about as much as a comparable conventional building unless most of the construction work can be performed by the owners and/or most of the materials are free.
It is important to think about the value of a straw bale home when comparing price. Straw bale buildings are superior to conventional buildings because they are superinsulated. Therefor, it is more accurate to compare the cost of a straw bale building to other forms of superinsulated buildings. When compared with other methods of superinsulation, straw bale building is generally less expensive (and kinder to the environment, which is another form of cost consideration).
The good news is that the cost of living in a straw bale building can be significantly less because they are so efficient to heat and cool. By incorporating passive solar orientation, daylighting strategies, high quality windows and doors, and efficient mechanical systems, the cost of powering a straw bale building can be half that of a conventional building.
Once you have an idea of what you’d like your house to be, we can work with you to come up to a schematic design and begin to put together a real estimate of the costs involved.