We built our off-grid French straw house for €30,000
A three-day course on how to build a straw house on a foundation of old tyres helped a British couple with no construction experience create their own home in France.
Felicity Lee and Dan Coleman, both 34, wanted a place to settle down after working as English teachers in Asia and as hosts for mountain holiday companies in Europe.
Now they are in the final stages of the interior work on their home.
It is on the edge of a hamlet with neighbours hooked up to electricity, water and sewerage systems, but they have decided to go “off grid” for all but their telephone – essential for their work as English language teachers over Skype.
Dan said: “In part, it is for environmental reasons – we want to make as little impact as possible and live without being consumed by consumption.”
Felicity added: “But it is also because we built the house on a limited budget and we were really lucky in doing so when the price of good-quality solar panels was dropping.
“To be connected to the electricity grid would have cost around €1,200 and it would have been the same for the water. Our electricity panels cost €400 and Dan made the battery himself. The water tank cost €400 too, so you can see the savings.”
Unlike other pioneers of straw-bale housing in the Charente, Felicity and Dan did not have any problems getting planning permission.
Guidelines given to them specified the colour of the outside walls, shape of windows and roof materials, but the planners were not worried about the structure.
They were asked at first to consider changing the placement on their 1.2 hectares of land to line up the house with neighbours, but planners accepted their argument that doing so on their sloping land would make one side of the house too low in the ground.
They also had no problem getting the necessary permissions for their composting toilet and reed-bed system for grey water, after paying for tests to show their land was suitable.
The building process they followed was developed by Barbara Jones, “the British guru when it comes to straw-bale building”, they say.
A digger and driver were hired to dig down to firm subsoil and level the plot for the 76m² house. It cost €400 and was the only professional help they had.
Foundations of old tyres filled with stamped-down gravel were put in place. Box beams made of Douglas pine were then put on top of the tyres and the composite wood floor laid before the straw bales were placed.
Wooden uprights were put in between just to keep them straight.
“We bought 500 bales but ended up only using 300, because so many were not tight enough. It took three days of sorting and then tightening the twine on the bales to make them as compact as possible,” said Felicity.
Once the seven layers of bales were up, more box beams were laid on top of them to provide support for the roof timbers.
A 6ft 7in German friend, whom they met while working on organic farms in Japan, proved invaluable in helping them get the roof timbers up, which they did without a crane.
The roof tiles were then put on – leading to the most stressful part of the project.
“It was the first time the walls had any real weight on them, and because our bales were not that good, they compressed 30cm,” said Dan.
“And because I started in one corner instead of spreading the tiles around, there was too much weight in one place and the whole house started to lean. I thought it might all fall down.” An emergency call to Barbara Jones back in England reassured them and setting a couple of props in the right place and pulling on a rope had the whole house settling back in shape.
Then, with the roof safely in place, they started putting on the lime render – by hand as attempts to use a machine were slower.
Three layers of lime and sand rendering on the outside and another three on the inside cover the bales.
Uneven compression of the bales means the walls have what the couple described as a pleasing “wavy” look.
Inside, they are using split bamboo, cut by hand not a chainsaw, for dividing walls, with daub from their land and lime rendering completing the process.
They moved into the house, and out of the two-berth caravan they had lived in on site, last winter.
The house was heated with just three-and-a-half steres of firewood, thanks to the insulating quality of the straw and the additional insulation they have in the roof and floor.
Dan’s battery, which took him three months to build using old laptop batteries bought off eBay, gives them power for lights, their ADSL box and charging their laptops, but they do not use many electrical appliances.
So far, they estimate that the house has cost them €20,000 for the land, and around another €30,000 for the structure and fittings.
The couple are now planning to run courses on building straw houses, with the first this September.
“Dan has a masters degree in international relations, and I have a degree in communication and European studies,” said Felicity. “Neither of us had done anything similar but we went on the course [in Brighton] and watch a lot of YouTube videos of people who have done similar things.
“I nearly got trapped and almost bought a tiny one-bedroom flat in the UK with a 100% mortgage just before the recession but a little voice told me it was crazy.
“We want to show people that there is another way of getting your home.”
More details of the building process can be found on their website, lesvignesbasses.org.
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