Straw Bale Homes: Can They Provide Affordable & Safe Housing?

     finished plaster coated straw bale home   

Extreme weather is happening more than ever lately. (Picture yourself in this scenario that many are experiencing in America today. You’re relaxing in your home watching TV after dinner. All of a sudden a breathless weatherman interrupts your program. A map of your state is behind him. He points to a red swath enclosing your town. “Take shelter! Right now! An E4 tornado has been sighted heading your way!”

The sirens begin blaring their warning outside. At once you summon your family and run for the basement to take cover. Huddling together, gripped in fear, you feel a tremendous vibration shake the foundation. A sound like a locomotive penetrates your ears. The walls and roof collapse above you. “Are we going to survive this?”

A profound silence signals that the tornado has passed. Your family is alive. Giddy with thankfulness, you struggle to find a path through the debris to get outside. Your house is gone. The horrendous destruction of your neighbors’ homes stretch before you. )

Our current homes and buildings are no match against extreme wind velocity. In the aftermath, where does the waste end up? Our landfills are full of construction debris. Toxic breakdown over several years seeps into the ground and ends up in our water supply.

Is there an answer to building sturdier homes that can withstand the extremes of wind and fire? Homes that are nontoxic and promote the wellbeing of its inhabitants?   Andrew Morrison of strawbale.com and a number of architects believe there is. 

      Straw bale home under construction

             A history of how straw bale homes came into being

In the late 1890s settlers moving to Nebraska started to build homes with straw bales. The idea was born out of necessity. There were no trees on an endless prairie, but there was straw after harvesting grain.They began to layer bales to build one story dwellings with sloped roofs. The eventual application of plaster created cool conditions in summer and warmth in winter. The houses withstood the high winds of the prairie and were soundproof. 

Straw bale construction died out after WWII as cement became popular as a building material. Straw bale usage gained renewed attention by a British firm in 2001. They became aware that straw bale homes were being built around the world.

        Why build a straw bale house in the first place?

 Most of us remember the fairy tale about the three little pigs. They built a house of straw for a refuge against their enemy, the big bad wolf. But the wily wolf huffed and puffed and blew their house down. Many people still believe that tale about a house of straw being an unsafe dwelling.                                       

       Interior design of a straw bale home

The price of wood climbs higher every day. And the available resource is declining. This is an important factor in considering other building materials. Straw is available in most parts of our country since it is a byproduct of growing grains. Modern tractors pack bales tight, making them more fire resistant than other materials. It reduces global warming for farmers used to burn straw, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. 

Thick dense walls provide quietness from an already noise filled world. Construction is fast because the bales are large and easy to handle. Plus bales are flexible enough to resist collapse during an earthquake. 50% of greenhouse gases are caused by the construction industry. And the transportation needed to bring the materials to a site adds to this percentage.

       But is straw bale cheaper than traditional builds?

Construction costs are about the same. Once you factor in building a foundation and adding windows, doors, and a roof. The bales themselves cost about $9.00 apiece. You can reduce this expense by hosting  a straw bale raising party. Andrew Morrison conducts several hands-on workshops per year. You need little to no experience. One can apply at strawbale.com to host a party. 

Participants sign up to attend, paying tuition for valuable instruction. This includes camping space and food. The host usually has the framework erected and cement foundation in place. A shelter covers stacked straw bales to keep them dry. Wide lumber strips secured to the foundation serve as toe-ups. A pile of small stones awaits outside for the raising party to begin.

        Beauty of plaster covered walls

I joined a straw bale construction workshop near Little Rock, Arkansas in 2013. We gathered at a Presbyterian Camp to build one of the longest conference centers at the time. Andrew Morrison presided, teaching us the fundamentals of . . .

  • Bale stacking details
  • Retying & resizing bales
  • Framing considerations
  • Incorporating electrical wiring within the walls
  • Creating curves with a chain saw
  • Ventilation to keep house moisture & mold out
  • Creating niches
  • Installing cabinets & partition walls
  • Building strong foundations before plastering

We were there to learn how to construct a nontoxic straw bale home. Most of us planned to build our own houses from scratch in the future. Most of us had no construction experience. The process is that easy to learn. 

             Benefits of living in a straw bale home 

Straw bales are a natural material. They’re breathable and don’t contain pollens, which is good news for allergy sufferers. Modern building materials may contain formaldehyde and other chemicals. Plaster coats the walls giving them a high R-value. This is the measurement for insulation resistance. This style of house keeps heat in and cold out, saving up to 75% on heating and cooling costs. Thick walls have high soundproof ability, an advantage if living near a busy highway. The plaster seal prevents critters from getting into the walls. Conventional homes contain nooks and crannies which are attractive to rodents. The walls are pleasing to the eye. Visitors can’t seem to avoid touching them. 

Home owners feel secure. These houses can withstand tornado force winds and manage earthquake movement. They can also resist the extreme temperatures of wildfires. 

Most straw bale homes are in the USA, particularly the Southwest and California. There are some in the rainy Pacific NW and snowy New England. China and Australia build a lot of these also.

            Construction considerations

        Straw bale house under construction

Building officials, lenders and insurers will have to approve your plans. They like to see a post and beam frame supporting the roof, while the bales serve as insulation. That design is closer to our standard form of construction. You will need a straw bale contractor.  “The Last Straw” quarterly has a database of green builders.

Building a post and beam house? Pour the foundation first before the framing is constructed. Next comes the roof. Now you’re ready to stack the bales between the studs. Select 2-string and 3-string bales. Use hand held moisture meters to check the moisture content of each bale. A reading up to 20% is considered safe. A golden light color indicates less moisture. 

Bales need to be off the ground so they don’t soak up moisture. Toe-up platforms on a concrete foundation prevents this. Nails hammered into the toe-ups anchor the bales in place. Stack the bales like you would Lego blocks. Insert windows and doors in wooden frames. Secure lumber strips into the bales to hold future cabinets. Install electrical cables  encased in plastic sheathing into the walls. Keep plumbing  away from the bales in their own internal walls.

Wire mesh anchors the bales to the roofing frame and toe-ups. Plaster finishes the external and internal walls. Avoid using any waterproofing material. Straw will dissipate any moisture on its own. The plaster coating assists in this. Wall paints should be breathable also. Lime, silicate and latex paints are available.

     Compelling reasons to build straw bale homes             

Arkin Tilt Architects, based in Berkley, California, specialize in ecological planning and design. They’ve built many straw bale homes throughout the West. They know these homes are durable during climate change with catastrophic storms. Data supports their withstanding tornado and hurricane force winds as well as wildfires. All the homes they have constructed have survived the recent wildfires out west.

https://www.arkintilt.com

Architect Greg Rothers, owner of Design/Build, Kansas City, Kansas, states, 

           “Clients come to me for the following reasons:

  • Desire to use natural building materials for ecological concerns 
  • To save on energy costs
  • For the unique look of the walls “          

He believes the negative views on resale value are due to myths and preconceived notions. “As more people become aware of the benefits of straw bale home construction, that will change. “

https://rothersdesignbuild.com

Community Rebuilds, erects energy efficient straw bale homes for low-income wage earners near Moab, Utah. Future construction students join potential home owners for ongoing projects. They participate in a free five month program and receive a stipend plus housing. It operates similar to Habitat for Humanity. 

communityrebuilds.org educates interested parties in sustainability and affordable housing. They have a blog worth reading.

     Photo courtesy of  Strawbale Studio outside Oxford, Michigan

strawbalestudio.org conducts classes and workshops on Midwest natural building skills. This is another worthwhile website to peruse.

Now do you understand the potential for building energy efficient, healthy homes? We don’t have to suffer catastrophic losses to our neighborhoods. From an ecological sense the earth will benefit also. Spread the word and do your own research on straw bale homes. Consider building one of your own.

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