A house built of straw – Smart Living Magazine
By Kevin Brooker
Like most people, you’ve probably entertained ideas of one day building your own dream home. But if your fantasy involves a conventional approach to construction – like stud walls heavy on lumber, insulation barely to code and lots of plumbing leading to a sewer or septic field – maybe it’s time to update the dream.
In the past two decades, a far-flung network of innovators has developed, and proven, a variety of alternative construction techniques and materials that are increasingly moving into the mainstream. Among their practical goals, these creative builders aim to spend less money during construction, exert greater personal control, use local materials, do less harm to the environment and through energy conservation, save even more money as the years go by.
If that sounds inspiring, you’ll want to visit, either in person or virtually, a new demonstration home to be built this summer at the Everdale Environmental Education Centre (www.everdale.org) near Hillsburgh, Ont., an hour northwest of Toronto. It’s called Home Alive! The House that Thinks, Drinks and Breaths, and it will be the country’s most sophisticated example of sustainable building.
The man who will supervise the construction – and ultimately, broaden the demonstration-home concept by actually living in it – is Ben Polley, founder of a Guelph Ont., company called Harvest Homes (www.harvesthomes.ca) that specializes in straw-bale construction. Four years ago, Polley’s life changed when he was first shown the century-old technique—-developed by Nebraska farmers lacking wood for barns—in which bales of straw are stacked like bricks, then sandwiched between layers of reinforced plaster.
“I was so impressed,” Polley says, “I quit my job and went into this full-time.” Not that Polley lacked technical knowledge. Having been an award-winning energy manager in the food processing industry, Polley was quick to see virtues even beyond those of making great-looking, load-bearing walls out of what is essentially agricultural waste. “Straw makes phenomenal insulation,” he says. “The rating ranges between R-35 and R-50, or two to three times better insulation than the best conventional home structures.” Combined with design features that enhance passive solar absorption in winter and optimize air flow year-round, straw bale homes require astonishingly low energy inputs. Polley knows of one 1,600-square-footer in Northern Ontario that used only $150 worth of fuel last year.
Build your own
Another advantage: straw bale is well-suited to do-it-yourselfers. Like a giant-sized Lego, the process is readily understood and doesn’t, for the most part, require exceptional carpentry skills.
It’s quite feasible for a family to erect a structure like a simple cottage in the course of a working summer vacation. The Internet abounds with such testimonies, most of which you can find through the annotated links at Surfing Straw Bale (www.mha-net. org/html/sblinks.htm). Many provide hands-on tips for free or a nominal cost, such as the straw home builders’ journal The Last Straw (www.strawhomes.com). At Camel’s Back Construction (www.strawhomes.ca), a Canadian pioneer in the field, you can buy one of the best how-to books, Straw Bale Building: How to Flan, Design and Build With Straw, by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack. At Bale Watch (www.balewatch.com), you’ll find plans for some 50 different houses. But it’s the success stories that will do most to spur you on, like the one at Paul Reimer’s Straw-bale Home Page (www.pareimer.hsdl5.ca). The resident of La Broquerie, Man., reports that he spent less than $1,500 for all the structural materials in his family’s 2,300-square-foot home. And it looks great, too—like many straw homes, the thick walls suggest the style of an adobe hacienda.
If you’re still not convinced, consider that a modest-sized house will require anywhere from 300 to 550 bales, which, depending where you live, usually cost between $1 and $4 apiece. A common worry is that animal pests might eventually breach the plaster coating and eat the straw. In fact, the material has negligible nutritive value and holds little interest for rodents. The leading potential pitfall, according to Polley, is penetration by moisture at sloppy joints around doors or windows. “If you’re careful with your finishing work, though, it seals well and is pretty much trouble free.”
Straw is really green
All this, of course, addresses only the structure. There remains the matter of how the shell is plumbed, lit, heated and so on. To get an idea of the vast array of options, visit Canada’s Environmental Choice (www.environmentalchoice.com), a categorized list of certified green products and technologies. As for the Home Alive! project, it will deploy perhaps the greatest array of environmentally friendly technologies ever seen in one building. “Most of the products we’re using are commercially available now,” says Polley, “although there are some concepts still in the developmental stage.”
The home will have state-of-the-art computerized monitoring and control of ventilation, lighting and security devices. Heat comes via radiant flooring generated by a historic masonry oven and augmented by a roof- integrated solar hot-water collector (see “The Sun is Free, p. 24). There’s also a system to recycle “waste” heat like that of hot shower water going down the drain. As for the water itself, it will be collected, filtered and stored by various rain catchment devices. Nor is there a sewer, as such—just a closed system of grey water (shower, sinks) and black water (toilets) that will be fully recycled through an artificial wetland on the property.
Much of the energy used will be produced on-site through a combination of a residential fuel cell, wind turbine and roof-integrated photovoltaics, which converts light energy into electricity. The federal government’s Canadian Renewable Energy Network (www.canren.gc.ca) has information on a variety of technologies currently available.
“There’s nothing like watching the electric meter spin backwards,” says Polley, who understands that economics will be the ultimate factor in driving such products in the marketplace. Indeed, one of the reasons he has seized on the revolutionary products was because he saw exciting technologies that had previously been languishing in a “laid-back, granola atmosphere that wasn’t going to get them into the mainstream.”
His mission is clear. “The fact is, these technologies work,” he stresses. “They save the earth and they save you money. If you’re building anything, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t use them.
While he thinks that the first little piggy had it right, Kevin Brooker ([email protected]) still lives in a house made of bricks.