Home addition has family grasping at straws – Guelph Mercury

By Lisa Varano
Mercury Staff

The straw house in the story of the three little pigs may have been easily blown down by the big bad wolf, but that was before the green movement. Now, building a home with bales of straw is a sound and sturdy choice, according to some local environmental activists.

Straw-bale homes have recently been constructed across Ontario by a local company – and Guelph will soon have its first completed example.

A stucco room, insulated with tightly-packed straw, is being added to the back of a century =-old brick home next to Sunny Acres Park.

It took six months for its owners, Jeff and Bonnie Bersche, to persuade city hall to allow the construction after a building permit was initially denied.

The city wasn’t alone – the couple’s friends also needed convincing.

The reactions were hilarious. As soon as you say you’re building a straw-bale house, the first thing they say is ‘What?’ They ask all the same questions: Isn’t it going to catch on fire? Aren’t you afraid there are going to be bugs?” said Jeff.

Walls made of straw bales are in fact fire proof, unappetizing to critters and comparable in price to conventional building materials, he said.

The Bersches and their sons, ages 10 and 13, had outgrown their 900 square foot home, but they didn’t want to leave the house they had lived in for the last decade. They decided to add a 200 square foot family room with a yard on the roof.

Once the renovations are complete in late January, the house will like like any other brick-stucco hybrid except for one detail. A small windowpane by the back door will peek into the straw insulation as a reminder that the walls are different.

“We decided we would build this way or we would not build at all.” said Bonnie. “I just figured, why not do it this way, when there’s no harm to the Earth?”

The Bersches were motivated to live a greener lifestyle after having children. They gave up one of their cars and began looking for other ways to help the environment.

“You start to think ‘What am I doing?’ How am I impacting the world and the Earth for my Kids” Jeff said.

Then they met Ben Polley, founder and owner of Harvest Homes, the Guelph-based company that makes straw-bale houses. Since the company was born eight years ago, it has built 40 new homes or additions to existing homes, in locations including Wellington County and Waterloo Region.

“These additions are becoming popular,” Polley said. “It allows people that live in an urban area to incorporate something like straw bale, an alternative technology that, to this point, has largely been a rural phenomenon” because space is limited for construction in cities.”

Harvest Homes is the only company in southwestern Ontario dedicated to straw-bale construction, Polley said.

“The market was already ripe for this kind of construction. There were many people where were interested in having straw-bale homes or additions built for them, but there wasn’t anybody with the appropriate skills to deliver on that,” he said.

Polley became intrigued about the homes when he learned they were resistant to fire. His family home had burned own when he was a child.

“When bound in a bale form, they don’t easily burn, but if you were to rip them open and spread the straw out, that can ignite,” said Polley, who lives in a straw-bale house in Hillsburgh.

The straw-bale home cost about $125 per square foot, he said.

“We can provide a highly efficient building that is environmentally friendly and yet it costs no more money than building a conventional structure.” he said. “Typically, we’re told that anything that’s green or more efficient is going to cost you more. That doesn’t necessary have to be the case.