The straw bale house, part II: Design, planning permission and location

The straw bale house, part II: Design, planning permission and location

Fri, Apr 04 2008 2291 Views

Designing our straw bale house has taken some time. Thankfully, I've had the help of an architect, Nikolai Stoyanov, who is interested and enthusiastic. Nikolai explained the design and planning permission process as well as the costs. We began by asking the municipality to check our boundaries and produce an up-to-date "skitsa". The skitsa was available for collection after two weeks and cost 22 leva.

The cost of design work and construction drawings are calculated per square metre, therefore the total cost is dependent on the size of the house. There is an additional charge of 100 to 150 leva for a consultant to check the work and finally a charge of between five and 10 leva a sq m for planning permission. In order to estimate the initial costs and to set a budget, we had first to decide on the design and size of the house.

Fired with enthusiasm after reading numerous books on straw bale building, I wanted to build a hybrid straw bale house with a load bearing wall on one side and a timber frame on the side to allow for larger windows. However, I soon discovered that there are no laws in Bulgaria on building a load-bearing construction and to change the law could take some time. As I'm 56, I didn't think time was on my side, so I decided to apply for permission to build a timber-framed (post and beam) house with infill straw bale walls. Perhaps I'll try the load-bearing method next time when I build something smaller, like a shed!

The design of our new house has been influenced by the design of our existing property, which has an open-plan living area. Our instructions to Nikolai were to incorporate the following design features:

- an open-plan room with kitchen, dining and lounge areas
- an entrance lobby
- a bathroom
- a mezzanine floor comprising one bedroom
- a wood-burning stove
- lots of light

We decided on a mezzanine floor so that the house would not dominate the site and thought that the size of the house should be about 11m x 6m, which fitted the plot, giving a total space of 96.5 sq m.

The new house will slot into a space opposite our existing house. Currently, this space is occupied by a one-storey, derelict building called "The Other" (see picture). On Nikolai's first visit he suggested a different position. We thought about it but returned to our original idea, as the location we'd chosen provided symmetry with existing buildings and features. However, as the process progressed, we began to understand Nikolai's suggestion. The place we'd chosen for the new house faced north-west and was on the lowest part of our land, which meant the front of the new building would only get sun in the evening and would be positioned slightly downhill from the septic tank that we hope to use. However, with some lateral thinking and help from Nikolai, we decided to turn the house around and put the front door facing the south-east and French windows facing the north-west (see pictures of front and back elevations).

We've also been lucky with the septic tank, which turns out to be one metre deeper than the proposed foundations of the straw bale house and therefore usable.

The orientation of a house is important not only in terms of passive solar gain but also in a feng shui context. I am a great believer in feng shui and I was, therefore, happy to read in Simon Brown's book about the benefits of having a front door facing the south-east. "A door positioned in the south-east from the centre of a building will bring in Chi energy that encourages the occupants' lives to develop harmoniously. This energy is associated with creativity and communication and can lead the occupants to have good connections both socially and in their business." (See picture of the internal layout of the ground floor.)

Problems and solutions
Recently, I went to meet our new village mayor to tell him about the straw bale build. He was very interested (and amused), but when I showed him the information about the straw bale building course that we'd hoped to run in early July, he was puzzled. How could we run this course, he wondered, before the harvest in late July? A year ago I'd researched the timing of harvests in Bulgaria and hadn't realised that the wheat harvest was one of the last. Nightmare! A project management mistake at this early stage was embarrassing. However thanks to the flexibility of Amazon Nails (our straw bale course trainers) we were been able to renegotiate the course dates.

What next?
During the past four years we have asked three people about the possibility of renovating The Other. All of them said independently that it would not be possible because the beams were rotten and the structure was weak. All three pushed at the walls to demonstrate how fragile a building it is and all three have gone off shaking their heads at the thought of trying to save such a frail building. Two weeks ago my husband, one of our neighbours and a volunteer from Help Exchange started work on dismantling The Other. After a couple of hours I took them coffee confidently expecting the building to have fallen under the onslaught of three guys with sledgehammers. Consider my amazement when I found the building still standing solidly, with three sweating figures leaning on it for support! Apparently the demolition process was not as easy as we'd been led to believe. Watch this space!

The straw bale building course will take place from July 30 to August 3 2008. Barbara Jones of Amazon Nails [] will run it in Hotnitsa. Let me know if you're interested via

- Architect Nikolai Stoyanov is based in Veliko Turnovo.
- Principles of Feng Shui by Simon Brown (Thorson, 1996).
- For some beautiful straw bale houses see The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes by Athena and Bill Steen (Chelsea Green Publishing Company).
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