(Gibbs-Smith; 2003; $39.95; www.strawbalecentral.com)
The following is an edited excerpt (with permission) from the "Introduction" to the book.
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A WONDERFUL IRONY about strawbale home owners is that they often started out as complete skeptics. "Doesn’t it rot? Doesn’t it burn? What about the Big Bad Wolf?" We converts who’ve heard this before have learned to smile patiently. After all, it was little more than a decade ago that modern-day pioneers seeking affordable, ecological, beautiful housing built the first code-approved strawbale homes. Now they are found in every state in the United States and all over the world.
It’s not surprising that so many have been won over by the amazing potential of the humble bale. Individually, stalks of straw seem fragile, but hundreds together, compressed and baled, make a sturdy building block. Stack a bunch of these blocks together and walls can go up in a hurry. Roof and plaster it, and you have an energy-efficient house-the concept is simple and attractive. Plus, soft, sculptable straw bales can be shaped into cozy spaces, forming a home that feels like an embrace.
This home not only feels good, but you can feel good about it; straw is commonly underutilized-composted or burned as an agricultural waste product. The "staff" of the staff of life, straw is available at a cheap price wherever grain is grown. Replacing conventional "stick frame" walls with bales can cut by half the amount of timber needed in a modern home, reducing demand on forest resources. And stacked like giant bricks to form a thick wall, bales offer super insulation from the heat, cold and outside noise, providing a quiet, comfortable living space with modest lifetime energy requirements.
Strawbale home owners from New Mexico to Nova Scotia, California to China, live comfortably with energy bills that are a fraction of their neighbors’.
Constructed with care, these homes have successfully endured snow and rain, earthquakes and hurricanes.
Building with bales began over a century ago as pioneers began to settle in the sand hills of Nebraska. Finding themselves in a sea of grass on a treeless prairie, they utilized the relatively new technology of horse-powered baling machines to create a stable building block from an abundant local resource. By simply stacking up interlocking bales and plastering them with mud or cement stucco to create sturdy homes, the pioneers saved their precious trees for roof structures. But as soon as railroads came through, bringing brick and timber and other supplies, Nebraskans began building "real" homes, and strawbale houses faded into history.
Enough examples of strawbale construction survive, however, to give modern builders evidence of durability and confidence in the structural stability of bales.
The Strawbale Revival
While the occasional strawbale building went up in the intervening decades, it was in the 1970s and 1980s that homesteaders , permaculturists and alternative builders, motivated by the potential for affordable and sustainable shelter, began rediscovering the concept of building with bales.
This led to more research and experimentation and a journal called The Last Straw, which began gathering information from old and new strawbale pioneers, publishing techniques and success stories, and fostering communication and cooperation. ‘Within a few years, advocates in both Arizona and New Mexico were lobbying their building-code departments for permits to build bale buildings. They also initiated testing programs to prove the durability of the emerging technology.
By 1993, unplastered, load-bearing, three-string bale wall systems had successfully passed compression, transverse load and racking sheer tests in Tucson, Arizona. And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, plastered, load-bearing, two-tie wall systems withstood a simulated 100-plus miles-per-hour wind force and a two-hour ASTM 119 fire test. The surprised lab technicians reasoned that straw resists combustion when compressed into bales and sealed with plaster because the fire is starved of oxygen. These laboratory results qualify a plastered strawbale wall for a commercial fire rating.
The impressive results of these testing programs helped persuade cautious code officials, and in 1994, Tucson and Pima County, Arizona, adopted a "prescriptive standard" for load-bearing bale construction, while in New Mexico, state officials okayed strawbale building guidelines for post-andbeam structures with straw bales as infill. For better or for worse, these two codes now form the basis of most permitted structures in the United States.
During the last decade, advocates have developed book, video and Internet resources for learning about strawbale construction, and helping to educate building officials.
Straw-building associations in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, California and the Midwest offer professional advice and hands-on workshops. In California, architects, engineers and politicians recently hammered out the most progressive code language yet, and a state-funded testing program administered by the Environmental Building Network will soon answer more structural questions and offer insight into the relative strength of earthen plasters.
A Home for All Climates
In the meantime, architects and builders have successfully adapted strawbale designs to local climates, from the desert Southwest to the rainforests of the Pacific. The few thousand strawbale homes built in North America in the last decade are generally proving to be durable and comfortable. Strawbale’s user-friendly construction techniques can also empower tentative owner/builders to get involved with building their own dream homes.
This is also a house that considers seven generations. Unlike most manufactured building materials, straw is very low in "embodied energy"- the energy required to harvest, process and deliver a material to market. Combined with solar orientation, natural plasters, daylighting, and appropriate ventilation, a strawbale home blends energy efficiency and aesthetics with a healthy indoor environment. It seems that this new/old building technology is poised to enter mainstream consciousness.
So, what does a strawbale house look like? The answer is truly-whatever you want. From southwestern Santa Fe style, to north-country alpine approaches, to sleek urban designs, today’s architects and owner/builders are thinking beyond the box and shaping bale structures in response to climate and regional traditions and to suit their personal aesthetic preferences.