Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Seriously, Why Straw Bale?

When I began working on my radiant floor post the other day, I realized that there are so many other posts I need to write for the sustainable part of this blog---top of the list being reasons why a person would try to build a house out of straw. Living in our particular part of the northeastern United States, straw bale construction isn't something you see often. The only exposure most people in this region have to green building is what they may have caught on HGTV. That makes teaching with homes like Terra Dei and Haven Homestead a special joy. To take a visitor from the mindset of "Why on earth would you want to build with straw?" to "Boy, that's pretty cool," is a gift we're blessed to give. Our aim is to share open-mindedness, possibility and vision, not to convince visitors that they could or should build a straw bale house.

Here's the thing, the answer to "Why build with bales?" has already been published many times by experts in the field. Not being one to reinvent the wheel, what I'd like to do is give you a rundown of a list compiled by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, from their book, Serious Straw Bale. In their first chapter they list eight excellent reasons why building with bales is a viable alternative to conventional construction, as listed here.

1. Beauty
I love that this is the first benefit they give for building with straw, because beauty itself attracts me most to straw bale construction. The combination of straw walls and earth plaster could perhaps be considered the antithesis of conventional home construction---both in types of material and in aesthetics. There is a subtle beauty to a bale wall, seen in the gentle curves and in the way the light falls on the plaster throughout the day.

The above photo is from one of my favorite spots in Haven. Note the rounded windowsills, the deep ledge where one can curl up with a blanket and a book. Above the chair, a truth window bears witness to the origin of the wall.

2. Insulation Value
According to Lacinski and Bergeron, "Plastered bales provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction" (p. 5). In layman's terms, bale walls can provide more insulation than conventional walls for around the same cost.

3. Nontoxic
In a world that we have increasingly filled with pollutants, this is a fundamental reason to choose straw bale construction. Straw is a natural material. "Unlike many manufactured building products, they [straw walls] contain no toxic ingredients and are chemically stable. They will release no unhealthy chemicals into your home, and will not emit poisonous fumes in case of a fire" (p. 9). At Haven, we did our best to choose nontoxic building/furnishing materials within our budget at every step. Straw and plastered walls were an early part of this continual process.

4. Use of Resources
When you choose to build a home, you are choosing to use resources. Your choice is to reuse material from previous construction or to use new material. We did some of each. Straw is a new material, but it is one that is readily available in our area. It can be grown in one season. In some locations straw is actually burned in the field as a waste product of agriculture. By using straw, "we might also reduce the pressure on forests (the most important carbon sinks and oxygen producers on the planet) and the demand for relatively energy- and pollution-intensive industrial insulation materials" (p. 10).

5. Economical
In these tight economic times, cost is a factor in everything we do. (Had we known what the last four years would bring financially, I don't know that we would have chosen to build when we did, if at all.) Our family was rapidly outgrowing our two bedroom Cape Cod house at the time. We were faced with buying a larger existing home, building a conventional home or building a straw bale home. We chose to build a straw bale home because we have experience in this area. We knew that if we did most of the construction ourselves we would save money in the process. Building our own straw bale home would allow us to obtain "much more home for our money", as the popular saying goes. According to Lacinski and Bergeron, "Bale construction is getting to be cost-competitive with good-quality stick-framed construction, assuming a tight design that doesn't drive labor costs through the roof" (p. 10).

6. Owner-Builder Friendly
Aptly written, these authors describe straw bale as "well suited to a 'gang of friends' method of construction" (p. 12). Especially for raising the walls, many hands make light work. We were able to place the bales for the first floor using two work weekends. Along the entire journey we have been fortunate to have good friends and family members who took our venture as their own and have been intricately involved in the construction and finishing details of our home. Working with friends saves time and money. More than that, it allows you to build more satisfying relationships with people you thought you knew well prior to building.

7. Fun
Different people have varying ideas as to what constitutes "fun". I wouldn't say that I particularly enjoy many of the jobs in construction, until you get to mudding and plastering the walls. For me, those jobs contain a great deal of creative fun! That is one of the fabulous parts of building your own home: people are free to try out a vast number of different jobs and see what they enjoy the most. There's also something to be said for the "synergy of group effort" (p. 12), stepping back and saying, "Can you believe we accomplished all this together?"

The above photo is an example of my idea of fun. This is the inside of my front door, which leads into a mudroom. Note the rounded walls next to the door, the curve of the interior corner! We were near the end of the interior plastering, and the bare wall was begging for some variation. My inspiration for cutting a niche into the bale wall was taken from Athena and Bill Steen's book, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes. Todd used a chainsaw to carve into the bale. I used earth plaster to shape a triangular shelf, and the Trinity niche was born. The small mudroom was also the perfect place to apply a darker color of plaster---just for fun.

8. Durable
Bale buildings have been created for almost as long as the baling machine has been in existence. Much of the durability of bale walls comes from proper finishing with some type of plaster. When detailed correctly they are actually fire resistant; "plastered bale-wall systems have outperformed wood-framed walls in fire tests" (p. 13). Rodents and insects have a hard time finding a home in a wall that has been plastered and sealed off. Though we don't worry about it in our area, bale walls have even been tested and considered a viable option for earthquake-prone areas (p. 15).

Many thanks to Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron for sharing their collective experience with us in Serious Straw Bale. It is well known in straw bale circles and a book we trusted throughout the building process.

I will say this: the experiences I have had building two different straw bale structures has changed my life for the better. Not only have we created beautiful, safe, warm homes, I have personally learned many different construction skills along the way. An exerpt from the Christmas letter I typed last night: "Words cannot express how we’ve grown closer as a family simply because we endured the building process. The house becomes an excellent metaphor for building our life together, of taking separate agendas and meshing them into one structure that can hold us all."

That's not to say that everything along the building journey has been easy. On another day, I'll be sure to compile a post of "Boy, I wish we had known xyz about building," or "Yeah, that wasn't our best idea." But for today, from the office where I sit, I have a pretty optimistic view of our Life Under a Blue Roof. Thanks for sharing our journey!

Have you ever visited or built a structure of straw bales? Post a comment and let us know!


  1. You guys have done an amazing job~ your house is gorgeous! I can't wait to see it in real life sometime.
    Check out Quiet Creek Herb Garden, in Brookeville. They've built a strawbale apartment onto their barn that's equally charming.

  2. I found their website---it looks like heaven on earth, with the emphasis on whole foods, yoga, etc.
    How did you find out about the apartment being straw bale? Did your dad have a connection with them when he built his barn/garage?

  3. Your home is so beautiful! And, I so enjoy your blog!

  4. Absolutely awesome! I love the deep window wells too...well done!