INEXPENSIVE AND SENSIBLE:
STRAW BALE HOMES
Traditionally, people built their homes with locally available materials and did not destroy the land in order to build. Today, we are far from that ideal, but a renewed interest in an old idea can bring us a lot closer to sensible housing solutions... and save us money as well! Locally-grown straw bales are being used to build homes on several reserves this summer, and for many good reasons.
That's right, straw bale homes! Using regularly baled straw from any grain crop (wheat, barley, oats, rye), people are once again beginning to apply this old idea to new homes and outbuildings. By stacking the bales in the same overlapping pattern used for bricks and cement blocks, then parging the bale walls with cement or gypsum plaster, a remarkably sturdy, durable wall can be easily created. A straw bale wall offers insulation values of R-40 to R-45, at least double the insulation of a regular frame wall, all at a lower cost!
Straw bale homes are quickly gaining in popularity. Only a handful of building-code approved straw homes existed two years ago. Now, the number of starts is rising exponentially as people find out about the benefits of building with bales. With the increase in popularity have come studies and tests which bear out the claims made by those who have built with straw bales. Fire tests have showed that a bale wall offers more than twice the flame resistance of a frame wall, and structural tests back up claims of superior strength.
Two methods of building with straw currently exist. Post-and-beam style uses a wooden or steel framework, and the bales are used as an insulative "in-fill". Load-bearing (or Nebraska) style uses the bale walls to directly support the roof loads, with a tensioning "tie-down" system applied to pre-compress the walls to remove any sponginess. Examples of both methods are currently being lived in, and have received building permits in Ontario, Canada.
One of the great advantages of building with bales is that an entire community can become involved in the "bale raising", even people without any building experience. In a matter of days, a crew of young and old can stack and plaster the walls for a house, reducing the costs even further. And there is something special about having a whole community get involved in building its own housing.
As with any style of building, there are specific "tricks" to successfully making a straw bale structure. Most important is to start with good, tight bales that were baled dry and have been stored in a dry place. Among the details important to bale walls are a raised curb to keep the bales off the floor, a wide top-plate to meet the bales at the top of the wall, and deep window bucks for rough framing the openings in the bale wall.
Straw bale homes have been built on all styles of foundation, from full basement to slab to pole. Bungalows and two-story homes have both been erected with straw bale walls.
Using straw bales as a construction material eliminates the need for most of the framing lumber, insulation, vapor and air barriers, siding and drywall used in conventional homes. Most straw home owners paid between $1.50 and $3.00 per bale, and a large home can be built from 400-500 bales. For farmers who have their own supply of straw, the walls of a home could literally be built for free!
If you have a building project on your horizon, why not choose the traditional approach and build with locally baled straw? You'll create a less-expensive, more environmentally friendly and community-oriented house. And when the low, low heating bills come in, you'll be glad you did!
Written by: Chris Magwood. Chris Magwood is the co-author with Peter Mack of the just released Straw Bale Building: How to Plan, Design, and Build with Straw from New Society Publishers.
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