Our Straw Bale Office Build
We have been fortunate to have the opportunity to construct a small load bearing straw bale building before we launch into our big project. These are some of the lessons we have learnt along the way. We hope they are useful to you.
The primary lesson for us was about planning; unless you plan carefully and thoroughly you may find yourself with unpleasant surprises that cause costs to swell and timetables to go out of the window. So the first and last lesson is to PLAN PLAN PLAN...
Careful research is needed to know what you need to plan and which professionals you may need.
Areas to consider are:
Site - Planning, access, drainage
Design - Universal design principles
Materials - Environmental sustainability, performance, ease of use
Professionals - Surveyors, architectural engineers, builders, contracts and supervision of professionals
(Delegating work does not mean abdicating responsibility!)
Logistics - deliveries, transport, materials storage, workers, scheduling
People care - Food, accommodation, health and safety, wellbeing, evaluation of training
Management - What processes/structures will you use, define roles and responsibilities, how will you manage accountability?
Budget - Costs of all the above + contingency of 10%!
What is the purpose of the building? What will people need from this building and how will they use it? How will you design the building to be fit for purpose?
Imagine walking through the project finished and ask how you got there, what does it look like and how is it made and from what?
Take time to be detailed and thorough in your research and get input from appropriate, trusted (as far as possible) professional/s early in the process - before you proceed beyond the planning stage.
Be flexible in planning stages but avoid changing the design once you start the build, be prepared for any changes at a later stage to have a knock on effect in every area of the build.
Go through every aspect of your build and plan how, when and by whom it will happen and what you need on site to make it happen.
Build in a contingency of both time + money of 10% minimum - Beware of underestimating- there will be things outside your control eg weather, illness, accidents and failure of materials.
You need processes to develop and communicate your plans amongst yourselves and to others, planning meetings attended by as many participants as possible. Using democratic processes like consensus means people are more likely to contribute and invest physically and emotionally in the project, gain confidence and enjoy the work.
Reports to absent parties are important, good minute taking is helpful for this, everyone needs to know what’s going on as far as possible, as well as having the opportunity to input and respond to developments. This has the added benefit of slowing the process down and giving everyone time to consider and potentially spot any holes or mistakes in your plans.
Concern for the health and wellbeing of everyone involved in the project is essential. Whilst some of this responsibility falls on the individual concerned, it is important that it’s integral to the build process, to help prevent burnout and keep people safe.
As well as the obvious points such as health and safety policy, there are other ways to help keep everyone, well, happy and productive and strengthen relationships that can support the build, such as:
Regular reflection/feedback sessions
Sharing food together - providing the opportunity to rest and relax as well as to talk, get to know each other and check in on how people are feeling.
Jollies - Having fun together on non-build activities eg. film nights, folk dancing, whatever appeals.
It is important to hang onto these social activities, even if you are short of time, they can make the difference between success and failure, increasing work satisfaction and supporting relationships.
Our journey through this build process has made us stronger, more confident and determined as a team and also more realistic about the length of time these things take and the importance of deep and thorough planning before you start any project. Building actually, as with everything, is about building relationships and trusting each other We have met some fantastic people who we could not have done the build without. And we have created a beautiful office for ourselves!