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April 10, 2003 8:18 PM   Subscribe

Straw Bale Housing. An an energy efficient, alternative architecture.
posted by The Jesse Helms (24 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
There are a few straw-bale homes where I live. Apparently they had a bugger of a time getting them passed by the inspectors: the laws simply don't accomodate innovative construction forms.

That said, they are wonderfully heat-efficient, soundproof, amazingly fireproof (they simply do not burn), and have awesome wide window ledges that are ideal for curling up and reading a book.

I want one. ooooh, do I want one.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:03 PM on April 10, 2003


They are more common in area with low moisture. It can be done as the first link is in PA but have to be very careful about foundation drainage and leaks and termites. Of all the no-skill building techniques this would be one of the easiest.
posted by stbalbach at 9:16 PM on April 10, 2003


Not suitable for areas with Big Bad Wolves, I wouldn't imagine.

Seriously, this is cool and interesting, but I have a few concerns. First, the look is decidedly... informal. Maybe it's the photography, but in the interior shots in particular, none of the angles appear to be exactly square. I'd feel like I was living in the set for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Second, construction looks very labor intensive. Translation: expensive. In particular, the plastering: this is the way it was done with plaster-on-lathe, fifty years ago, before the invention of drywall. For the guy who built this one himself, maybe he enjoyed it, or didn't consider his time important. But if these houses are ever going to succeed on more than a boutique basis, the laborers' time must be factored into the cost.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 9:23 PM on April 10, 2003


Think of all the Big Bad Wolves this would really piss off.
posted by ArsncHeart at 9:23 PM on April 10, 2003


Gah! I really need to read before commenting. Jeeze...sorry, Slithy_Tove.
posted by ArsncHeart at 9:23 PM on April 10, 2003


There's an active group of people building Hobbit Houses based on the sets as seen in LOTR. While the strawbales are not underground, they have a fairtale look about them perhaps because of the rough handhewn work.

For labour it's unskilled so the idea is bring in anyone at $8/hr (or community for free) the materials cost is very low. The hard part that may require outside help is the foundation and shell and roof.
posted by stbalbach at 9:35 PM on April 10, 2003


There's an active group of people building Hobbit Houses based on the sets as seen in LOTR. While the strawbales are not underground, they have a fairtale look about them perhaps because of the rough handhewn work.

Anyone who likes Hobbit Houses should also check out the Home for Life Project.
posted by homunculus at 10:15 PM on April 10, 2003


Believe it or not back many years ago in America before
most people surrendered our life over to our massive corporations, before the Walmart and other MegaStores and the Grey Slabs entered the edges of your town before we became alienated fearful consumers jacked up on Zoloft and Xanix. Many people actually used to raise houses together.

If you get a chance to work with a group of people doing this it is a powerful transformer of the spirit. Go ahead
try it you might be delighted.
posted by thedailygrowl at 10:40 PM on April 10, 2003


Extreme no-skills technique indeed stbalbach. Growing up on a working dairy farm, I was sometimes amazed at the intricate forts four boys could build on an afternoon in the hay barn. (sans the wall plaster and roof, of course).

And I can see an R-factor of 50-55 easy. Even on below freezing days, you could warm your hands if you jammed them far enough into the bale. (they're very tightly packed).
posted by Cedric at 10:42 PM on April 10, 2003


Actually, I wish I could dig up the link but many of the over-the-top claims made about the R-factor -- that is to say, the insulating capacity -- of strawbale walls were based on a single early and very flawed study. No study under controlled conditions done since then has been able to reproduce the R-50+ that advocates claim, or even do much better than a standard drywall-stuffed-with-fiberglass arrangement.

Still a good idea for dry climates, though.
posted by argybarg at 11:12 PM on April 10, 2003


Fascinating, thanks :).
posted by plep at 11:44 PM on April 10, 2003


Thanks The Jesse for the links.

Straw bale is very popular here in the Southwest (Santa Fe, New Mexico). There are 2 types. With a solid straw bale,you stack the bales to form the walls and use a chain saw to cut out the plumbing and electrical conduits. This is the cheap method. With infill straw bale, you build a wood frame and use the bales to fill in. Out here, mud and straw are the norm (think adobe).

It can be as cheap or as elaborate as you want. The infill method is more in line with building codes, the solid method conforms with building hippy communes in Gila, NM (birthplace of straw bale in NM). If you want to buy some land and build yourself, straw bale is a great alternative to wood frame. As far as low humidity; well that's good for just about everything, cars, buildings,old folks... but I'm not sure it's any worse than traditional building. Mold is mold.

I've heard the I'll huff and I'll puff. If the 3 little pigs were right, we'd all be living in brick houses. That said, I met folks who built up a straw bale out in Northern New Mexico. They were building a solid straw bale and spent the weekend putting up the walls of their house. Their neighbor let loose his herd of cows and they caught a whiff of the straw and stampeded the house to bits. Straw is an agricultural waste product but it still smells like food to cattle.

Straw bale is sound proof, energy efficient (heat goes up so it also depends your roof r-factor) and uses waste as a building resource. I know folks who build it and live in it. Farms in Colorado are now providing straw bales specifically for building. There are straw bale homes in Nebraska built in the early 1900's that are still in use.

No wolves have blown them down as far as I know!
posted by jabo at 12:37 AM on April 11, 2003


No study under controlled conditions done since then has been able to reproduce the R-50+ that advocates claim, or even do much better than a standard drywall-stuffed-with-fiberglass arrangement.
Here is a page about standardized R-values that can be used for heat loss calculations for straw bales
I tend to favor the tests completed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which indicate R-1.45 per inch for a stucco clad straw bale wall. For a good summary on the testing completed to date, see the Environmental Building News website. There is a good overview article discussing various measurements of the R-value of straw bale walls at http://www.buildinggreen.com/news/r-value.html (from Environmental Building News Volume 7, No. 9 -- October 1998).
posted by Sirius at 12:38 AM on April 11, 2003


Most of these examples are a little bit folksy for my tastes. The Straw Bale House in north London by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects manages to look contemporary (more).
posted by jonathanbell at 12:42 AM on April 11, 2003


Sirius -

An average straw bale is 18 inches thick. That gives an R value of about 26 (according to Oak Ridge, although I think that is low). Wood frames are usually R-19. Fiberglass insulation and gypsum dry wall are a bit more intensive to manufacture than straw. It also depends on your roof construction (heat goes up).

Also, R values are only half the story. Thermal mass can help to heat a home. Adobe trombe walls are used for heat gain and adobe walls can hold temperature steady. It doesn't matter what your R value is if your house maintains an constant temp of 68 degrees f. I think straw can do this as well.

I think. Just watch out for cattle, that's all I'm sayin.
posted by jabo at 1:01 AM on April 11, 2003


Theres a fantastic program on telly in the uk called Grand Designs where they follow the building/rebuilding of houses from start to finish. One of the shows this series was of a guy that built a straw-bale and local wood house. I dunno if you get the show in other countries but its well worth watching if you get a chance.

Theres details of the build at the channel four website.
posted by couch at 2:26 AM on April 11, 2003


Don't believe the hype. Wanna get radical & efficient? Try papercrete. Want old school cool, natural & energy efficient, try Cob or, cordwood
posted by pekar wood at 4:57 AM on April 11, 2003


Here is a guy who thinks he has a much better solar heating idea than Trombe Walls. I haven't verified his numbers, but it looks reasonable and I'm going to check it out before I build my future (non straw bale) house.

I think one of us is confused on insulation and thermal mass (or my reading comprehension sucks). The way I understand it is:

The insulation (straw or fiberglass) makes it easier to maintain the temperature difference between the inside and outside. More insulation means less energy is needed to heat / cool your house.

The thermal mass (stucco, concrete, rocks, water) helps you store the energy you use to heat / cool your house and keeps the temperature more steady, but won't really help heat your house (use less energy). It is more like a temperature battery.

If you have a house that has lots of thermal mass but little insulation (like a castle), it would be very hard to keep the interior warm if it was cold outside (but it would keep a fairly constant cold temp).

I wonder if you can get cattle insurance for your straw bale house?
posted by Sirius at 6:01 AM on April 11, 2003


Jabo,

Rereading your post again, I realize that my reading comprehension does indeed suck.
posted by Sirius at 6:13 AM on April 11, 2003


Geodesic domes, man. That's the future! :)
(I'm talking to you, aaronscool, for when you eventually post to this thread)

I'm so jealous of people who have the time and money to try an experimental home design. There's something very satisfying about the idea of building not just a comfortable home, but one that's organic around the human space, and that is clever and elegant in its design and resource use. *sigh* Stoopid Seattle real estate prices... >:(
posted by hincandenza at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2003


There are also Bottle houses.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:26 AM on April 11, 2003


A few straw bale buildings exist in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Our local codes state that the exterior walls have to be reinforced with steel rebar due to the hurricanes that come this way each year. Other than that and the foundations, the buildings haven't needed many more considerations here where the humidity is high than in New Mexico where it's nice and low.
posted by onhazier at 9:32 AM on April 11, 2003


Apparently they had a bugger of a time getting them passed by the inspectors: the laws simply don't accomodate innovative construction forms.

Or structures that are extremely friendly to our pal fire.
posted by Bag Man at 2:46 PM on April 11, 2003


Bag Man:

Common misconception. Strawbale structures are fire-resistant. Read any of the sources cited above if you don't want to take my word for it.
posted by argybarg at 2:17 PM on April 12, 2003


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