Is it finished yet?

When people ask us if the house is finished yet …and I say ‘Yes‘; but even as the word comes out, I hear Linda saying ‘No‘.

‘…well, sort-of finished‘; we agree.

Thing is, when a job like self-building a house is 97% complete there’s so little fight left in you that you call it ‘finished’ or ‘as-good-as’ and put your tools away before the pipes have been boxed-in, the window boards have been cut to fit around the quirky shape of the straw bale walls, and before a wall has been built around the loo. Don’t ask. People ask a lot of questions about living in a straw bale house. Mainly they’re to do with the perceived risks of fire, vermin, and rot. ‘How long will your house last?’ They ask …as though we’ve built a summer camp …but the winter will destroy it.

Don’t laugh, but when push comes to shove, what lies behind their fears-on-our-behalf is the story about the three little pigs. Being told, at such a young age, that danger lurks if you build a house of straw, seeps into our formative minds and unconsciously throbs out its warning for the rest of our lives. We’re all quite damaged in that way.

Having survived the danger of being attacked by wolves, fire, rot, and vermin for twelve months – so far …and with every prospect of being able to survive another twelve – I can tell you that when you live in a straw bale house you are unaware of the fact that the walls are built from straw. …Except that it is incredibly warm; there’s pleasing undulation to the lime-plastered walls; there’s no condensation or humidity in airless corners of the bathroom; and there’s a subtle wholesome smell in the atmosphere.

Being off-grid, do you have to run your generator all the time? Apart from using straw bales as the material of choice for our walls, something else we’ll all be doing in future is to generate electricity for our own consumption. For the last forty years the price of solar panels (PV) has been falling. In 1977 a panel used to cost £56 for every watt it produced – today it’s 23p. There was a great surge of interest in installing panels ten or fifteen years ago on the basis that you could sell electricity to the back to the grid to earn a handsome second-income. Conjoining the idea that you installed solar panels only to earn money has backfired now that the price you will be paid for each unit of electricity has fallen to a fraction of the original offer. Another result of conjoining the idea is that few people consider installing solar in order to cut their tie with the electricity grid. Why should they?

PV panels have a design life of 25 years. Lead/acid batteries will need to be replaced every 5 or 10 years (…but they’ll only last that long if you look after them.) Installing your own off-gridPV electrical system will cost £10k – £15k. And you’ll get the VAT back on that if it’s a new build. Two or three more lots of batteries, over the years, might be another £12k, say.

The average annual electricity bill in the UK today is £600. The average annual price hike is 8%. In twenty-five years we’ll be paying £4,100 a year for our electricity. The average household will have paid £65,000 for grid electricity during the 25 year life of a Solar Panels.

I know I won’t be believed when I say this – but it makes no sense to connect your new-build house to the grid. And in answer to the original question …about whether we ‘have to run our generator all the time’ – last year we ran it for 20 hours.

We used to live on board a boat. On board we learnt to manage our resources …and that lesson helps us keep our generator run-time to a miserly minimum. We don’t use high demand devices on a cloudy day. We look at the weather forecast and if it’s going to be sunnier tomorrow – that’s when we do the washing; make beer; run our light/industrial workshop tools.

By the way, our boat’s got a new home, too. Nice innit? Lucky boat.

Justin Tyers

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8 Responses to Is it finished yet?

  1. Mr Neil G Jonah says:

    Hi, I have Ive got a provisional mortgage to build a straw bale house and am putting the costings together now to get a price for how much it will cost to build. What I’m looking for is some info. Firstly how did you manage to get planning permission to build in Exmoor National Park as this is usually nigh on impossible. I have was it down to building an off grid eco-house. How much was the planning part of the project and did you use an architect?

    • justintyers says:

      Hi Neil, the Exmoor National Park have two tiers of planning approvals – and you’re right it is nigh on impossible to get permission to build ‘open-market’ housing. We have ‘local’ status, and have agreed to a Section 106 clause – which means that our house can only be sold to a ‘local’ person, at an ‘affordable’ price (usually about 2/3rds market value). For this the planning consent is slightly more lenient. Probably the next most important factor in gaining permission is that the house was designed to ‘fit in’ with its environment – and yes, I’m sure it helps that the building uses sustainable materials and has a very low carbon footprint. (It is actually carbon negative, if you know what I mean.) The planning application was in the region of £500 (if I remember correctly); Building regs was about £800; and there are one or two other fees – such as thermal calculations, and structural engineering certificate for our frame. The Architect was me. I’m not trained as an architect, but I knew what kind of house I wanted to live in; I am used to drawing (I work sometimes as a graphite artist); I was willing to learn the Building Regulations; and I understand a little bit about pegged timber framing. Doing the Architectural work myself saved probs £20k. Have a go yourself, or if it’s not your thing I could do it for you for about a quarter of that price (wild guess at this stage). Have you seen the vid? Thanks for reading my blog – and good luck with it all if I don’t hear from you again! Justin

  2. DAN COLBOURNE says:

    Hi Justin, really enjoying your blog, and I’ve a question – if someone approached you asking you to project manage their self build – would you a) be interested and b) what would you charge? I’ve no concrete plans yet or finance ready to go but I am curious in principle as you’ve been there and done it. It’s the only way I could have my own home and i love the idea of an eco build. Many thanks in advance, Dan

    • justintyers says:

      Hi Dan – thanks for getting in touch. Funny you should ask: I’m working on the design of a couple of projects for folk at the moment. So yes I’d be interested in being involved. Taking on the project management would be interesting too – but depends, I suppose, on where your planning to build? As for the cost – I don’t really know until we’ve had a chat, and I understand what you want to achieve. But you probably wouldn’t be outraged.

      Get in touch and tell me more:


  3. Ryan says:

    So youve built a boat and a straw house. What is next on the agenda?
    Just read your Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying and feel like the husband with tears in his eyes mumbling you are living the dream. All best, Ryan

    • justintyers says:

      Thanks Ryan – listen, if you need any encouragement to cast yourself adrift on life’s chances, you’ve come to the right place!

      What’s next – good question. Someone asked me that a couple of months back …quite took me by surprise. But now it started me thinking about it …I might do a land-tour of forgotten Spain. Before that, there will be another book. I haven’t told anyone that yet, except you. In fact i was just writing it when your message arrived – and I’ve stopped to answer your message – because that’s more fun. It won’t be about sailing, but it’ll still need your support 😉 Thanks for your kind words about ‘Canvas Flying’…

  4. Stephen says:

    Hi Justine.

    I am very fortunate. I have 2 children under the age of 7, a steel boat to maintain, a house, a small business that seems to take more effort than it should and a fantastic supportive wife (life partner or what ever the correct expression is).

    On the whole my life is pretty great but in the last few years I definitely been tied to the provision treadmill and someone seemed to switched in onto sprint – meaning apart from the 6 weeks we go cruising most summers life is very busy and at times stressful.

    So what this got to do with me I can hear you mutter.

    Well, I have read both your books more times than I care to remember and when life is just too busy, to be able sneak away and dive into one of your books is one of my greatest pleasures. So big thank you – your books allow me to escape and remind me to dream and that is a great gift you given me.

    • justintyers says:

      Hi Stephen – wow, praise indeed! Thanks so much for all you have said there. Yes, the work/life balance is a battle we’ll always be fighting, and never win. I’m glad that my books provide a bit of escapism. Here’s my parting-shot just now: Don’t stop dreaming …and never, ever give up. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’m saying that for you or me 😉

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