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Straw bale building in Mexico. (Homestead housing).

BOX 311

It all began about 10 years ago: Though I'd once been to San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez, it was only in late 1989 or 1990 that I bit on an invitation from an outfit called El Dorado Ranch Estates to get a "free" lot in a soon-to-be spectacular seaside resort just north of town.

I said what the heck, for only $28 a year I could get the "free" lot plus a membership that entitled me to the amenities at a soon-to-be-built swimming pool, cantina, stables, on-sight campground, etc. If the lot actually existed and was buildable, well, at the age of 43, it was more than I owned at the time, having recently gone through a divorce.

I later learned that thousands--maybe even hundreds of thousands--of these invitations had gone out all over North America. We were all told we had won a prize--either the lot or a synthetic diamond ring. Having at least been to San Felipe, I figured the lot could be more valuable--I remember the place as kind of a "poor man's Hawaii." I'm sure many thought it must be a scam just to get their annual $28 dues and opted for the ring--or tossed the package with its fancy photos in the garbage.

Ten years later I have to tell you, I may have lucked into the deal of a lifetime--and those deals don't come along very often. I've owned real estate since and presently live in a very amiable part of California right now, but if you're nearing retirement age and love the idea of residing--even part time--inexpensively and well in coastal Mexico, read further.

El Dorado Ranch Estates did, as promised, build a pretty spectacular resort (and is still abuildin', with a hotel planned). The "free" lots were there, but as you may have guessed, they were pretty unspectacular--10 miles from the main highway off a dirt road. Totally impractical for all but the kinds of folks enamored of a "Survivor" type lifestyle. But I, among a few hundred others, eventually "traded up" to some lots at $425 a year and an initial price of $1,500. These were close to the resort (and town) which eventually had paved roads and a water view. It was on these lots where many of us began our casas out of block, brick, wood or stone.

And then about 1996 or so, there were those folks (I among them) who heard about the burgeoning interest in straw bale construction at El Dorado Ranch Estates. (The road that led to El Dorado is fully documented in my short book Greener Pastures.)

I first became acquainted with straw bale building in Washington state where I planned on building a home. I had the lot in Baja at the time, just hadn't built anything on it. The Washington house was to go up in the summer of 1996, but all kinds of official interference brought down our dreams (see the Nov/Dec 1997 issue). When I heard that El Dorado was experimenting--indeed, embracing--the method, it made sense to shift my focus out of the states. (Now straw bale construction is popular in many regions of the U.S.)

Nearly out of money after the fiasco in Washington, I was able to get plans approved for building a 900 square foot home and put in a foundation and 10'x 12' storage building.

My marriage collapsed over the failure in Washington, and over the next two years there was little more I could do, but it was a start. I could still visit, camp on the land and use the resort--which I did maybe a dozen times.

When I met Eleanor, I wooed her partly on the promise of a regular Mexican vacation--fortunately she loved the place, at least for a week or so at a time. I hired local contractors--sometimes on an hourly basis, sometimes on a job basis--to keep the house project moving. But it was hard doing this from the states for a variety of reasons.

Why straw bale?

Even for those of us who have heard of it, this is a very misunderstood technique. Basically, the walls of the house are made of stacked 2' x 3' rectangular, thick, tightly wound bales. Each bale weighs 50-80 pounds or so, so no wind--even a hurricane--is going to move them very far. They are stacked on a wide concrete foundation, pinned together with rebar, further stabilized with chicken wire, and heavily stuccoed over. The finished walls look much like the walls of an adobe house.

Walls go up so fast using this method, that whole houses have gone up from foundation to roof level in a day with a few workers toiling away in a cooperative manner.

You can imagine that a straw bale house doesn't cost very much considering how large a "building block" it is. (My bales cost about $3.50 each.) The insulation value is R50-60, excellent for places with extreme temperatures.

Baja can get into the 100s in the summer. As long as cool air can be brought into the building at night, it is likely to stay relatively cool during the day. This is something you have to experiment with. My not-quite-completed house has a basement from which I plan to draw cool air--Baja nights don't always cool down. Even if I wanted to I couldn't run air conditioning because my community is not electrically powered and my planned for solar electric system doesn't have the capacity to do more than run lights, pumps, electronics and possibly a very small refrigerator.

Building this house has been a great adventure. Whenever I go down I try to work on it, and a family has helped out steadily. Many people have hired contractors just to get a house up in a couple of months or less--I couldn't afford to do that. If I spend $20,000 on the entire house, well, I'm going to have a rustic but very comfortable getaway. Comparable homes are costing $25,000-$45,000 at present. Some luxury two-story straw bale homes have even been built nearby.

I would certainly consider living here as my primary residence if and when my life changes after I truly become a senior citizen. There is excellent dental care locally and a responsive medical community targeted to the elderly. Hopefully the management at El Dorado won't change radically, and the land, under a bank trust (fidiecomismo), will legally stay mine for the 60 years promised.

Over the years I've tried to lure people down here to see for themselves. It's usually a waste of time. Then again, there was the couple who came and the husband needed dental work ($10,000 estimate in the states) which he got locally for $2,000. He was delighted and fell instantly in love with the area. My teenagers love to come down to party--at our expense--but most adults have irrational fears of Mexico, the water, a foreign language, etc.

If this sounds like an area you'd be interested in, contact William at He occasionally takes guests for a visit.

Greener Pastures is available for $6.95 from Bill Seavey, PO Box 2916, Orcutt, CA 93457.
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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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