Strawbale Housing Construction in Baja?
by William L. Seavey
My dream to build a strawbale house began in the mid-90s, thanks in great part to Ken Haggard and Polly Cooper, local sustainability gurus whom I’d visited just before the Santa Margarita fire. They were designing some of the first strawbale homes in the state.
But not being able to afford land locally, I took the project to a cooperative community in eastern Washington State which was embracing the method with workshops and seminars.
My 2000-square-foot home on five wooded acres bought for $17,000 turned out to be the first application in the county’s history, and months of wrangling and permit negotiations (some by my “green” architect) ensued, all eventually for naught. We were denied a permit to build. The local newspaper headlined the scandal when the area building official bumped the project up to the state level ICBO, which refused to budge. My wife (of the time) and I were crushed, and we considered our next move.
I had owned a lot for a couple years with a distant sea view in a developing resort in Baja near San Felipe, partly as a hedge against failure in the Pacific Northwest. I hadn’t decided what to build on it (had once considered a tire house), but when I received word that the resort was embracing the strawbale building method about the same time I was being blocked in Washington, we hauled everything we could off our lot and headed for Mexico. I consider it a serendipitous event, and we got started with a foundation and a storage building until running out of funds in early 1996. We licked our wounds in Mexico, however, before returning to the states, where my wife and I boarded at Bill Denneen’s hostel in Nipomo for another three months.
My marriage ultimately broke up over the stresses and strains, however, and for the first time in many years I was truly broke, just barely eking out a living on the Central Coast. At one point I even moved INTO my small office in Arroyo Grande, which became partly the inspiration for my book of 20 alternate home ideas, Home Dreams for Hard Times.
Fast forward to 1998 and I had remarried and was living in Santa Maria, still dreaming about Mexico. I had wooed Eleanor partly on the promise of sunny vacations in the Baja house. Funds finally became available to get the walls, windows and doors up, using a local Mexican contractor and a gringo intermediary (see pix of some of the construction at wwwretirement.com — no dot after www) and I was starting to feel as if I had finally birthed a baby. At this point less than $10,000 had been invested, including the price of the lot with a septic tank put in. I was one of the first of my immediate neighbors to get started with a strawbale house. (There are over 100 of them in the resort now).
Many such houses get started with workshops, and I began inviting people to come down with me to help out as a learning experience and vacation. A couple years ago I formalized this somewhat with my “Budget Mexico Tours” during which I offered an adventure including instruction in how to put together a small solar electric system, build with strawbale and learn about Mexico’s language and culture. (Thank goodness I had Spanish in high school). I’ve brought several dozen people down, including a handful from the Central Coast.
Building your own home, whether in the States or Mexico, is never easy. While Mexico throws up few regulatory roadblocks (our plans were finalized in a day), the construction process can be tedious. Not being able to be on site often posed challenges, but it all somehow worked. We never intended to build a standard house — in fact the 1000-or-so square feet consists of about 80% recycled materials. Plumbing and electrical inspections were never made, and we were able to design in innovative (if possibly less professional) ways. The resort owners are mostly concerned about outside appearances, so we have been cautious there. From the outside we have what looks to be (and is) a sturdy, if fairly nondescript (but colorful — pink!) structure with a long sandy driveway.
Despite the do-it-yourself nature of much of the house, this is not a dwelling that can blow down or burn down like a timber-framed house in the States. Except for the straw, protected on both sides by a thick layer of concrete stucco, it is mostly brick and concrete. Earthquakes are rare here, but it probably wouldn’t budge. We had one 50-year flood when a hurricane came over the tall mountains to dump 18 inches of rain on San Felipe in a day, and water coursed through our unbuilt foundation. (At least we know what to expect).
I had never owned a house before I started this project, only a small solar-powered RV. I am pretty confident I have built one of my resort’s least expensive homes, for around $20,000 so far, which is of course incredible by U.S. standards.
The home’s value has easily doubled, and new laws are allowing me to take nearly full title to the land. My annual dues (which include taxes) are only $450!
I love the Central Coast but if I couldn’t afford to live here I’d be in Mexico in a heartbeat a few months out of the year. People are friendly down there, love to share stories about their various building and home improvement projects, and living is cheap. It is refreshing to be away from Bush’s NeoCon America. You can swim in the warm Sea of Cortez (average temperature 75 degrees) about nine months out of the year. But summers can be brutal, so avoid July, August and parts of September.
These are just the highlights of my pioneering adventure in Mexico. There have been some true challenges along the way, including the theft of my beloved motor home, old Betsy. I admit I built a rather flimsy flat roof, which has required numerous repairs and enhancements. When it does occasionally rain, the roof can leak. But only 2” of rain is about the norm (no fog).
But all-in-all I am proud of what I have accomplished and want others to be inspired and energized by it. It is not too late to get started down here, though regulations and costs are increasing. I still run the tours, three each year, and things just get better and better. I might even have reliable solar hot water soon!
Bill Seavey is the author of the People’s Guide to Basic Solar Power, Power Your Car WITHOUT Gasoline!, and other books on sustainable lifestyles. He lives in Cambria MOST of the time. Forget about contacting him when he’s in Mexico.