Haven’t you ever wondered, what IS a straw bale house?
The following is an excerpt from Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michael Bergeron. It has been adapted for the web.
WHAT IS A STRAW BALE HOUSE?
Why are bales a good choice in a cold climate? Can bale walls be designed to withstand the vagaries of weather in the snow belt? These are questions we’ve been asking of ourselves for a good many years, and they have now become the guiding questions behind this book. To begin at the beginning, however, we must ponder this question of why. The idea of building a wall of bales seems to entice people’s imaginations. Why bales? We have come to believe that people are searching for alternatives to the plywood palace, to the modular mentality that has come to dominate the mainstream construction industry. Most new houses today are made of the same materials: machined sticks and sheets of wood, plastic, metal, and gypsum. They are usually assembled according to the same set of principles, so that once you’ve built a few, they get pretty boring. Except for that small percentage in which a designer, owner, or builder puts some real thought into creating a form and finish that suits the owner and the site, these houses somehow feel the same.
There are three main reasons that straw bale construction is different. First of all, bale walls look very different from sheetrock walls. They look like the product of a human, rather than the product of a machine. Though bales are a new material (which makes design work challenging and fun), the feel of the finished wall harkens back to the preindustrial era. It seems that as our lives become increasingly technological, more and more people want to surround themselves with spaces that feel handmade and timeless.
Process is the second reason. Conventional construction is mathematical and precise, while bales and plaster are sloppy and intuitive. These characteristics are inviting to amateur builders, not only because they make bale construction easy to learn, but because they stand in contrast to the obsessive efficiency that most of us have had to accept as a part of the industrial economy. People see bale construction as a chance to cut loose.
Third, bale construction feels like an alternative to ecological waste. It’s akin to recycling. Recycling enjoys broad support across the political spectrum, because it’s obvious, it’s easy, and it gives people a sense that they can at least do something that is not harmful to the planet. While our agriculture is far from perfect, it does produce a lot of straw, so using some of it for construction makes intuitive sense.
Bruce Millard, a thoughtful architect from Sandpoint, Idaho, has developed this idea about building with bales a bit further. “Once people try this type of construction, they absorb it and agree with it, and begin to recognize it as a concept, as a psychological departure from the idea that industry is somehow more sophisticated than nature. It brings the left and the right together; it functions as a stepping block into an ecological way of building and living. People begin to ask, ‘How can I put this to work in the rest of my life?’”
Bruce sees the bale itself as a short-lived material. “We will soon realize that straw is very valuable—it will start going into particleboard and panelized materials, and it might be mixed with wood fiber for paper production.” Bruce uses the bale as an introduction to a whole array of recycled-content panels and blocks.
Bales also tend to serve as an introduction to traditional natural building techniques from around the world, all of which have much longer track records than the bale itself. Loose straw has been used for millennia in combination with clay and sand, for everything from plasters to load-bearing walls. Five-hundred-year-old examples of straw and clay infill are still in use in Germany, and this material has actually been rewetted and put back into wall cavities during restoration. Thatch makes a beautiful, durable, insulative roof. These and other techniques must be explored and developed if we are to continue to create decent housing for future generations on this planet. (See chapter 15, “Beyond the Bale.”)
Why Build a House of Straw Bales?
“Didn’t you learn anything from the first little pig?”
A mouthful of oatmeal and an earful of propaganda against building with straw; many of us were spoon-fed this breakfast throughout our childhoods. How is it, then, that perfectly sane people can consider living in a house whose walls are bales of straw? Maybe urbanization, suburbanization, and the decrease in the North American wolf population has lulled them into a sense of complacency about this domestic predator. Or maybe bales make such unusual walls that many of us are just willing to take the risk.
The most compelling among many reasons to build with bales is the quiet beauty of bale walls. Unlike walls of panelized materials, which require layers of ornamentation to bring life to their unnaturally uniform surfaces, bale walls look and feel as if they were made by hand. Their deep windowsills and gentle undulations lend a comfortably safe, quiet feeling to the interior of a home, while the plaster finish softly gathers and reflects light, changing in subtle ways as the sun shifts through each day and season. The effect is a heightened connection between indoor and outdoor worlds, an especially important relationship in climates where people spend a good part of the year inside buildings.
“We fell in love with the deep windowsills and rounded corners.”
“I like the massive feel, and the flexibility, of the bales; you can do anything with them, curvy or straight.”
“The house has a solid, embracing feeling, like it has its arms wrapped around me.”
Paul often describes bale walls as “plastered stone for the person of moderate means.” This is not to imply that bale walls don’t have a character of their own, which they certainly do; the point is that the massive, rounded feel of the bale wall is reminiscent of the old-world solidity of stone. (Bale walls also offer far more insulation value than stone walls, but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the appeal of bale buildings is that they just feel safe. Storms can be howling outside, or cars roaring along a nearby highway at twice the reasonable rate, and after the (good-quality) door clicks shut on a straw bale house, you will find yourself in near total silence. This sort of quiet allows the home to act as a refuge for the psyche; a place where the senses can escape the busy din of the postindustrial world.
Straw bale houses may look and feel like plastered stone or earth houses, but they are in a different thermal category, entirely. Old stone houses are cold. New stone houses are typically built with foam insulation, either sandwiched between two independent stone walls, or blown onto the inside face of the stone. Both of these methods are quite expensive. Plastered bales, on the other hand, provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction. [...]