May 19, 1995

House Of Straw Agricultural Waste Product Winning Converts As Alternative Building Material

By The Spokesman-Review
 

As one crew eagerly stacks 97-pound bales in a neat row along the perimeter of a concrete foundation, another team measures gaps to be plugged with custom-tied “half bales.”

“Was that hole 17 inches wide or 18?” asks a middle-aged massage therapist from Seattle.

“Whatever,” replies her playful bale-cutting partner. “We’re not building no piano.”

Maybe not a piano. But the one-room studio assembled last weekend on a grassy hillside overlooking northcentral Washington’s Methow River is music to the ears of those advocating alternative building techniques that take advantage of an agricultural waste product: straw.

That’s right, straw … the leftover stems of harvested grain … the same stuff that B.B. Wolf blew down with a huff and a puff. What your parents didn’t tell you at bedtime years ago is that a dense bale of straw provides 50 times more insulation than brick. Not only that, straw bales properly secured to a foundation and sealed in stucco are virtually fireproof, quakeproof, pestproof and soundproof.

“This is not the solution to America’s housing needs,” acknowledged Olympia designer and GreenFire Institute co-director Ted Butchart, who taught last weekend’s straw-bale construction workshop. “But it’s one of several possible solutions, depending on labor, materials, climate and other considerations.”

Okanogan County building inspector Dan Thomason agrees.

“This is definitely one of the homes of the future,” says Thomason, on hand to observe the straw-bale house raising. “It has great potential.”

Interest in straw-bale construction is on the rise. Butchart’s partner at GreenFire, conservationist Peggy Robinson, estimates there will be 50 straw-bale houses in Washington by the end of this year and as many as 300 more built in 1996.

Similar enthusiasm was voiced earlier this decade for earth-sheltered houses made from recycled tires packed with dirt. But that so-called “Earthship” movement proved to be a dud.

“One reason Earthships never took off,” explains Robinson, “is that they’re very hard to build. Plus, you don’t get the insulation of bales, and (unlike straw-bale walls) Earthships don’t breathe.

“Besides, no one knows what happens to old tires over time,” she says. “We know what happens to straw. It doesn’t decompose.”

Advocates base that assessment on straw-bale houses built a century ago in parts of Nebraska where trees were scarce and the soil was too sandy for sod construction. Some of those original straw buildings - even two-story versions - are still standing.

The seeds of the current straw-house revival were sown in the mid-1970s with the publication of the book “Shelter,” which included an essay about building with bales. The technique’s credibility received a boost in 1984 when Fine Homebuilding magazine featured a post-and-beam cottage with straw-bale infill.

Until recently, though, interest in straw-bale construction was concentrated in the Southwest, where there’s a tradition of using adobe and stucco. A New Mexico house built in 1991 was the first modern straw-bale structure to get an inspector’s OK, along with bank financing and insurance.

But enthusiasm for straw-bale construction spread rapidly in recent months, thanks in large part to a handsome new book on the subject titled “The Straw Bale House” (Chelsea Green, $30). The book painstakingly covers the basics.

Perhaps more important, its photographs illustrate how elegant and versatile the straw-bale medium can be.

One of the nicest features of straw, says co-author and photographer Bill Steen, is that it’s a forgiving material ideally suited for do-it-yourselfers and their friends.

“People seem to change fundamentally when they gain the added security that comes from knowing they are capable of providing their own shelter,” he observes.

Whether used for load-bearing walls or infill, straw is easy to work with. Dried bales typically are stacked in staggered courses, with wads of loose straw stuffed into seams. As the walls grow, bales are pinned together with metal rods, and wooden frames called “bucks” are placed where windows and doors eventually will be installed.

After the walls reach their final height and are secured to the foundation with a top plate or other method, the roof is added, electrical wiring is run through the bales, and the walls are ready to be stuccoed or otherwise finished. (Plumbing is best left out of bale walls, as it may cause moisture problems.)

With enough help, the process can be completed in three or four days. Of course, much of the labor, cost and time associated with homebuilding remain - installing cabinets, floor covering, plumbing and finish carpentry. But at least you have a roof over your head.

So far, most straw-bale construction has been relegated to remote rural areas where alternative lifestyles are the norm and strict enforcement of building codes the exception.

But enthusiasm among builders, along with the cooperation of open-minded inspectors, suggest the movement may continue to grow. Southwestern contractors are so confident, they’ve started turning out straw-bale “spec” homes, and an 11,000-square-foot custom home is in the works.

“There’s always going to be the you-guys-are-nuts factor with alternative building materials,” predicts GreenFire’s Robinson, who has endured more big bad wolf jokes than a little pig has hairs on its chinny chin chin.

“But straw bales address a lot of the problems people are trying to solve today,” she says, “whether it’s affordable housing, reducing long-term operating costs, preserving forests or just feeling a greater connection to the lodging you inhabit.”

The technology’s success, says Robinson, depends on persuading a lot of otherwise conventional people to try living in straw-bale houses.

“It all comes down to what I call the mother test,” she explains. “I have a good, standard, all-American mom from Ohio. When she and I went down to Albuquerque to check out a couple of straw houses, she was pretty skeptical at first. She was expecting some funky hippie house.”

Instead, says Robinson, her mother was charmed by the look and feel of the elegant, thick-walled structures. “They were places where she’d be proud to bring her bridge club.”

ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. WORKSHOP INFO GreenFire Institute plans another workshop near Coeur d’Alene July 22 and 23. The cost is $150, and class size is limited to 25 participants. For more information, call (206) 284-7470.

2. ADVANTAGES OF STRAW-BALE CONSTRUCTION: Straw walls offer more than twice the insulation as conventional stick-frame walls. They also enhance soundproofing, while allowing fresh air to gradually filter through to interior spaces. Walls go up quickly and require less skill than ones of wood, stone or brick. Straw houses can cost less than conventional homes if the owner provides sweat equity or hires unskilled labor. The main savings, though, come from lower heating and cooling costs. Compressed straw bales are too dense and unappetizing to attract rodents, bugs and other pests. The bales also are virtually fireproof, and can withstand high winds and seismic shocks. Many people like the aesthetics of straw-bale construction, characterized by thick, stucco-clad walls. Bale houses utilize a locally grown waste product (straw), reducing pressure on forests.

DISADVANTAGES The biggest drawback is fear of the unknown. Architects, engineers, bankers, builders, subcontractors, inspectors, insurance agents and Realtors naturally are more comfortable with familiar building materials. Because straw building techniques are evolving, complications are likely to occur at various stages of construction, even with steps as simple as hanging cabinets. Good planning helps minimize glitches. Due to their extreme thickness, bale walls reduce usable interior floor space. Source: Center for Resourceful Building Technology

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. WORKSHOP INFO GreenFire Institute plans another workshop near Coeur d’Alene July 22 and 23. The cost is $150, and class size is limited to 25 participants. For more information, call (206) 284-7470.

2. ADVANTAGES OF STRAW-BALE CONSTRUCTION: Straw walls offer more than twice the insulation as conventional stick-frame walls. They also enhance soundproofing, while allowing fresh air to gradually filter through to interior spaces. Walls go up quickly and require less skill than ones of wood, stone or brick. Straw houses can cost less than conventional homes if the owner provides sweat equity or hires unskilled labor. The main savings, though, come from lower heating and cooling costs. Compressed straw bales are too dense and unappetizing to attract rodents, bugs and other pests. The bales also are virtually fireproof, and can withstand high winds and seismic shocks. Many people like the aesthetics of straw-bale construction, characterized by thick, stucco-clad walls. Bale houses utilize a locally grown waste product (straw), reducing pressure on forests.

DISADVANTAGES The biggest drawback is fear of the unknown. Architects, engineers, bankers, builders, subcontractors, inspectors, insurance agents and Realtors naturally are more comfortable with familiar building materials. Because straw building techniques are evolving, complications are likely to occur at various stages of construction, even with steps as simple as hanging cabinets. Good planning helps minimize glitches. Due to their extreme thickness, bale walls reduce usable interior floor space. Source: Center for Resourceful Building Technology


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