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Living outside the box: Alternative building materials give homeowners more options

His love of plants may have something to do with Steve Miller building a straw-bale house. A professor of botany at the University of Wyoming, Miller began construction of his straw bale home two decades ago, after much research and designing. 

He considered other alternative materials, such as using cordwood, which he considered aesthetically beautiful, rammed earth, or a house made of tires, but with land near Laramie, Wyoming, that is flat and receives endless Wyoming wind, he settled upon straw as his material of choice. 

"I researched for years and years; I've always been interested in alternative construction and sustainability," he said. "It's something I could do myself. I never got a loan. I would save up and build a little bit, save up, build a little bit, and straw is definitely sustainable." 

The day after 9/11, in 2001, Miller's two years of planning came to fruition, and he broke ground by pouring the box beams required of his style of straw home, a modified post and beam, in which the roofing system rests on trusses, as opposed to a Nebraska-style straw home where the roof system rests directly on the bale walls. 

Due to Wyoming's lack of straw bale housing codes, Miller used New Mexico's codes. 

"All the bales were tied to a 2×4 with galvanized fence mesh and set in on rebar," he said. "The corners are different. There are a lot of ways to do it, but I used the box beam system for that. I built the box, stuffed it with insulation, and tied it directly into the bale system." 

Miller chose gunite, also known as shotcrete, over the more-commonly used stucco on the exterior and interior walls. Sand and cement are mixed with the ideal amount of water while shot out with the velocity of a .22 caliber bullet. 

"I used two-string bales with three inches of gunite," he said. "The walls of the house are two feet thick and have a value of R-51." 

The R represents the wall, attic, or floor's ability to resist the flow of heat. With higher R figures, the better it insulates per inch of thickness, and typical wall insulation ranges from R-11 to 28. 

Miller's 4,000 square foot home has never required more than $150 per month for heat in the dead of cold, windy Wyoming winters, or hot, windy Wyoming summers.  

"It's very quiet, very energy efficient," he said, "and when it's 95 degrees, it's 67 inside." 

Miller perfectly placed his home so that the sun goes directly over the house in summer. 

Similarly, Mark and Myrna Betson set their earth berm home in Whitney, Nebraska, in the same manner. The sun doesn't permeate the home during the summer due to an overhang over their wall of windows and perfectly-placed positioning. In the winter, sun streams in through windows and heats the concrete floor. 

"It's a heat sink in the winter and a cool sink in the summer," Myrna said. "Even without heat, these houses traditionally don't get below 56 degrees." 

Earth Shelter Technology, a company from Minnesota, traveled to western Nebraska to set Betsons' home into a partial hill on their ranch where their family has been since 1888. They used forms to pour concrete for the roof and walls, which are straight up for about 7'8", much like a traditional homes, but the unique design of the ceilings offers a benefit necessary of an in-ground home. 

"The curvature of the ceiling helps reflect light," Myrna said. "You don't really think you're in an earth shelter house; you don't feel like you're in a cellar." 

Once the structure was in place, about 20 years ago, Mark and Myrna did most of the finishing work themselves. 

"They put the structure in between Thanksgiving and Christmas," she said. "After they got the forms stripped off, we put up plastic in the holes for the windows so the wind and snow wouldn't come in. It was a heck of a big craft project." 

Both styles of homes are fire resistant, an important factor given where both homes are located in fire-prone areas during drought conditions. 

"In 2012, it felt like we were living in hell. There was fire and smoke and everything all around us," Myrna said when the area around Crawford, Nebraska, was dealing with forest and grass fires. "It burned the roof off, and we had trees too close to the west side, but no smoke or fire came in." 

Several vent pipes on top of the home melted as well, but Myrna said had they had a conventional house, it would have burnt. 

"When they had those big fires down in Colorado, amongst the diversity of homes, log houses and stick-built, those fires just burned right over the straw bale houses," Miler said.  

The tight construction and thickness of gunnite or stucco creates a seal, leaving no fuel to burn. If built correctly, straw and earth berm houses can last for generations. 

"I helped a guy in Douglas cut out a door that was too small because he had to be in a wheelchair. He built the the house in the '50s," Miller said. "We cut the door jamb, and it was as sweet as the day it was put in there." 

There are a few downfalls, though minor, to building an alternative construction house. Miller considers the lack of zoning and difficulty obtaining insurance or loans a small setback.  

"When you break away from how everybody has always built homes, it can be a little frightening," Myrna said. "Well, this house is going to take care of us when we get old and can't take care of a house. We just have to mow the roof once in a while." 

Getting ready for winter

Sometimes during the dog days of summer it's hard to believe that in a few weeks snow will be falling. But now, while the weather is nice, is when we should be thinking about and starting winter preparation. I asked friends and acquaintances in person and through Facebook for what they do to get ready, these are their answers. 

In the house: 

-Invest in storm windows, or close them if you already have them. For an economical solution, shrink-type plastic covers can help stop drafts from old single-pane windows. Insulated blinds can also help keep the chill at bay. 

-Caulk or insulate around windows or doors, if necessary. 

-Clean chimneys 

-Gather firewood 

-Fill propane tanks 

-Stock up on groceries 

-Freeze or can fruit and vegetables from the garden or farmers' market 

-Invest in a generator. Make sure it can be properly connected to the house, and that it has plenty of fuel. Know how it works and start it up before you need it. Check the oil, and change it if necessary. 

-Stock up on drinking water, especially if you rely on a well for water. 

-Locate the snow shovel and de-icer and place them near the door. 


In the yard: 

-Clean gutters and make roof repairs 

-Check vehicle batteries, tire condition, spare tires and winter survival kits. Make sure you have a blanket, nonperishable food, water and a flashlight. 

-Drain hoses and sprinkler systems. 

-Wash, service and store lawnmowers and other lawn equipment. 

-Clean the garden, mulch plants and trees. 

-Spray for bugs, inside and out. 

-Examine trees for broken or damaged branches—a little chainsaw work could save some major damage in the case of a heavy snowfall.  

-Place windbreaks around young trees or stake them to avoid wind damage. Fence with chicken wire or hardware cloth to protect from marauding rabbits. 

-Sharpen and start the chainsaw and make sure you've got plenty of gas, additive and bar oil for firewood-cutting.  


In the shop: 

-Wash all equipment, check hydraulic lines and antifreeze and service with the proper weight oil for cold weather. 

-Attach cakers, loaders and hook up bale processors. Do whatever necessary repairs or maintenance. 

-Throw some Fresh-Cab into equipment that won't be used for the winter, to ward off rodents. 

-Unhook batteries and relax the pressure in hydraulic lines of warm-weather-only vehicles. 

-Put doors on side-by-sides and windshields on four-wheelers. 

-Fill diesel tractors, pickups and bulk tanks with number one fuel. 

-Find power cords long enough to plug in engine block heaters. 

-Check tire pressure and condition and put on snow tires if necessary.  

-Dig out tire chains. 


In the barnyard: 

-Fill cake bins. 

-Haul hay home, after the worst danger of lightning is past. 

-Have the necessary salt and mineral on hand. 

-If you mix your own feed, make sure you stock up before storms hit. 

-Dig sand and dirt away from barn doors before the ground freezes. 

-Clean tanks. 

-Set up feedbunks. 

-Clean corrals and haul manure onto fields. 

-Repair corrals and windbreaks. 

-Nail down loose boards, siding or shingles on barns and sheds. 

-Check the chicken coop for drafts and dig out the heat lamp. 

-Check tank heaters, replacing any that are damaged or getting some age on them.  

-If you don't have tank heaters, locate the axe and pitchfork for chopping ice. 


In the pasture: 

-Drain pipelines and turn off or winterize stock wells. 

-Check hydrants to make sure they are draining back. 

-Drain tanks that won't be used. 

-Bank tanks before the ground freezes and pile manure around old windmills if they don't have weep holes. Manure emits heat, which helps keep the well from freezing. 

-Store or winterize unused solar panels, or make sure the angle is right for winter use.  

-Put away electric fencers, unless using them during the winter. 

-Mow trail roads, stockyards and feed grounds. 

-Relax the tension on high-tension wire. 

-Clean tumbleweeds from fencelines. 

-Worm horses once it freezes. 

-Pull shoes and trim hooves on horses so ice and snow don't ball up as badly. 


Winter can be long and hard but by preparing for it, blizzards and cold snaps can be a lot more bearable. 

Water in the winter for green trees in the spring

Fall tends to be a time for putting away hoses, rather than getting them out, but don't get in too big a hurry if you have newly-planted trees or shrubs. 

Tim Sime, one of the owners of Jolly Lane Greenhouse in Rapid City, South Dakota, said lack of winter moisture and temperature fluctuation are two of the major culprits when it comes to winter-killed plants. 

But don't let that stop you from planting new trees or shrubs this fall—just keep in mind that they may need water even after they've lost their leaves. 

"Fall is a good time for planting," Sime says. "For the most part, it's no different than planting in any other part of the season, as far as the planting process goes. If you can dig a hole, you can plant a tree. As long as the ground isn't frozen, it's fine to plant." 

Fall planting is best done with container-grown trees and shrubs in our area, according to John Ball, SDSU extension forestry specialist, in an iGrow article about planting bare-root trees. "While bare-root trees can be planted in the autumn and spring in most of the United States, in South Dakota only spring planting is advised. Our harsh and dry winters can often injure tender fall planted bare-root trees. Bare-root plantings are limited to the spring time period between soil temperatures warm enough to allow for root growth (at least 45° F) and when the tree's buds begin to expand," he writes. 

Sime advises amending the soil when planting trees or shrubs, unless you have unusually good soil—not typically the case in western South Dakota. Adding compost to South Dakota's native soils will help improve both drainage and moisture retention, keeping the soil and moisture in contact with the roots. 

"When we get to the point that we have freeze-up for winter, that ground needs to be saturated," he said. 

The danger for most trees and shrubs that don't have established root systems comes with the 50 to 60-degree days in the midst of winter's chill. While we may be basking in the sun, the thawing that begins can be deadly to plants. Making sure the soil around the roots is moist before it freezes can help offset the effects of these temperature fluctuations. "The moisture in the soil acts as an ice cube," Sime says. "It keeps the ground cold even when the temperature goes up." The goal is to prevent change in the soil temperature as much as possible. 

On those nice days, Sime suggests getting out the garden hose and letting it slowly trickle around the trees, or drilling a few small holes in a five-gallon bucket, and filling that and setting it beside the tree. "If the water is soaking in, the tree needs it. If it's running off, you don't need to water," he says. But he also says it's always better to have too much than not enough.  

Mulch can be another way to help keep trees alive over the winter. Wood chips or river rock help hold in the moisture that would otherwise be sucked out by winter winds with no snow cover.  

If you're not sure if watering is necessary, Sime suggests pushing a metal rod or stick into the ground as far as you can—at least six to 12 inches, to see where the moisture level is. The goal is to make sure there is moisture around the roots. When in doubt, water. 



Taking Sides: Choosing the right siding for the job

In rural areas, the wind and severe weather can be especially punishing, causing damage to vehicles, crops, and buildings. Homes are often the victims of damage from severe storms as well as from years of exposure to the elements.  

Andy Hesse, a siding contractor with Sorensen Roofing and Exteriors in Greeley, Colo., works extensively with rural homeowners and has seen record damage to homes this summer from severe weather. He said durability is king when selecting a siding product. 

Vinyl siding is on the bottom of the list in terms of durability but he said is valued for its ease of maintenance as it doesn't require painting every seven to 10 years. While it is cost-effective initially for many homeowners, Hesse doesn't recommend it. 

"The problem with vinyl siding is it's very susceptible to breaking in a storm," he said.  

While he said today's vinyl siding is more durable than its predecessors, vinyl is not the best choice in rural areas prone to high winds and hail.  

A more durable siding available is lap siding, an OSB board that is painted and does require periodic re-painting. When lap board siding is subjected to hail, the paint is chipped, typically leaving the siding mostly undamaged, making it more durable but requiring more frequent maintenance. 

"Rather than having to re-side the entire side of your house, you can just repaint it," he said. "It's a midrange-priced product for most homeowners." 

The high end, most durable siding, and the one Hesse recommends to his rural clients is Hardy Board concrete siding. This product is available painted from the factory but does add to the initial expense. It is the most durable option available and the paint typically carries a lengthy guarantee. 

"If people are looking for a durable product that doesn't require frequent painting, this is a good option," he said. 

Stucco is a common product in many areas and its durability is good for the cost associated. He said the trim on a stucco home is the area most typically damaged in severe weather as it's not typically as thick in those areas as in the main body. 

Hesse said it is vital that homeowners complete due diligence in researching contractors and only choose a contractor that will properly complete installation of siding. A contractor, he said, must understand what goes behind the siding. 

Hesse has noticed more contractors who are failing to install a house wrap product behind siding, especially vinyl. This leaves the plywood susceptible to moisture and eventual damage. 

"Just like a roof, you need a barrier between the actual plywood and the siding itself," he said. 

A good quality contractor will completely remove old or damaged siding, apply a Tyvex housewrap, and a flashing around all window and door openings to seal the house from water penetration around open areas, before installing siding.  

Siding is more than just a cosmetic product, he said, and while it can drastically improve curb appeal, its most important job is to protect the structure from water, the enemy of wooden structures. 

A good contractor, he said, should inspect the condition of the material behind the siding prior to delivering a quote. Any damaged material, rotted wood, or warped boards should be replaced before installing new siding to ensure longevity. 

"The cost does go up with that but you're not risking siding falling off because it's not on a good nail-able surface," he said.  

Hesse suggests homeowners keep trees and plants are away from the home, adjust sprinklers to not hit the home, and slope the landscaping properly away from the home to prevent water pooling. Gutters should also be periodically inspected for proper attachment to the home. 

"One of the big things I see is gutters that are getting clogged up which is causing overflow either out of the gutters or getting high enough that it goes behind the gutters and causing water damage around the trim and facia," he said. 

An annual pressure washing is another step in proper maintenance. Inspecting the seams of the siding for proper caulking is also key for the siding's longevity.  


Sold! Real estate auction can have advantages for buyers and sellers

Interested in buying the perfect piece of ground, but not interested in playing a waiting game or spending money over market value on a listed property? Agonizing over which neighbor to offer a property to first?  

Real estate auction could be the solution to both dilemmas. With proper preparation, real estate auction can be an exciting and easy process for both buyers and sellers.  

Thinking about buying? 

According to Kraupie's Real Estate & Auctioneers, purchasing property can save buyers time and money as this method often translates to a motivated seller who is following an established timeline. Real estate auction also puts buyers on a level playing field because bidding is an open and transparent format and all bidders are working from the same terms and conditions. 

Prepping to Buy 

An individual who is interested in buying real estate at auction should familiarize themselves with the property and with the terms and conditions of the auction. Potential buyers should inspect the property, review sample purchase contracts, and speak with the agent representing the property to gather more details.  Boundaries, personal property, irrigation details, and other factors should all be considered prior to making the decision to bid.   

From there potential buyers should make all necessary financial arrangements, so they are able to perform.   

"Do your homework before the auction so you know what the property is worth to you and you can bid with confidence," said Darrell Kraupie, Kraupie's Real Estate and Auctioneers, Bridgeport Nebraska. 

On Sale Day 

Selling methods may vary from auction company to auction company and even from property to property. Some sell using multiple rounds, by the acre, lump sums, or offer different combinations of tracts. It is important for buyers to be familiar with the auction process and registration being used prior to sale day.  

Buyers should also be on time. Real estate auctions often start with a review of terms and conditions that may include any changes from prior advertising. In addition, once the auction starts it can be over in a matter of minutes.  

Using a proxy bidder may be advantageous to a buyer who is unable to attend or at risk of being late. However, using a proxy bidder increases the risk of having information incorrectly relayed to the buyer about the sale.  

"It is always in the buyer's best interest to be in touch directly with the selling agent to discuss bidding options and understand the latest information related to the property," Kraupie said. 

Buyers should also be prepared for a successful bid on sale day, ready to sign a purchase agreement, and provide the necessary earnest deposit funds.   

Considering selling? 

When a property has been advertised and all interested parties have been given an equal opportunity to buy, selling real estate at auction can assure that a property will bringing what it's worth.  

"Auctions differ from other methods of sale in that they work in most markets. No property or is too big or too small to sell at auction.  We've sold properties for hundreds of thousands of dollars more at auction than sellers and/or brokers would have ever considered offering them for at private sale," Kraupie said.  

Selling real estate at auction comes with a designated timeline for closing and exchanging monies. The terms of the auction are set in advance, so all parties are treated equally.  Down payment will be given on sale day with no contingencies, making for a clean sale. 

Before Selling  

Sellers should do their homework and familiarize themselves with how auctions work. At many auctions the final sale is subject to seller confirmation or subject to reserve. The seller should have a price in mind based on the current market and be prepared to make the decision to sell. When bidding reaches the chosen threshold, the seller can tell the auctioneer that the property will sell beyond that point regardless of price. 

Choosing an Auctioneer 

It's important to hire a reputable professional real estate auctioneer. A reputable auctioneer is one who has been in business for an extended period of time and continuously provides successful results. 

The right professional will have a firm grasp of their client's goals for the property and be able to advise them on the current market, guiding them through the process to a successful outcome. They will fully understand the property, its characteristics, and the local factors that could affect the sale. They will also have knowledge of potential buyers, locally and nationally, for the type of land in the area.  

"Experienced auctioneers will recognize and understand the difficulties a property may face and have the required knowledge to resolve them, making a big difference in the seller's experience and dictating the profitability of the transaction," Kraupie said.  

Homeland 2016

Welcome to the 2016 edition of Homeland.