Straw-bale homes are built to last – Muskoka Magazine

By Karen Wehrstein

No Three Little Pigs jokes, please.

People are building houses out of straw, and the houses are standing up in the face of wolves, wind and what-have-you, thank you very much. In fact, straw-bale construction pro­vides a house so solid and substantial that heating costs are much reduced and air conditioning is unnecessary.

“There’s an awful lot of mass in the house,” says Pat DeYoung, whose future home is under construc­tion near Baysville. “Once the place gets warm, it holds the heat. That much mass is like living in a cave. It keeps it cool in summer as well.”

Studies by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show that straw-bale homes typically require 25-40 percent less energy for heating and cooling than conventionally-built equivalents.

As well, DeYoung says: “It’s quite beautiful. I like the aesthetics, the big solid walls, curved comers and 16-inch window sills. It provides the framework to an arts and crafts kind of approach to decorating, a kind of hand-made, do-it-yourself mode. People should be able to create their environment with their hands. This gives me permission to do that in the house.”

So how do you build a house out of straw? There are two types of construction, DeYoung explains. In one, load-bearing walls are built out of bales of straw stacked on top of each other like bricks, then strengthened and sealed off with mesh on which stucco is applied, after which the roof is raised on top.

The second type, “modified post- and-beam,” is the method that was used for her house. An initial frame­work is built of wood, with roof included, though the framework is not strong enough to hold a Muskoka winter snow-load until the bales are added. They are stacked within the wall framework, covered with mesh, then stuccoed.

“Until building inspection depart­ments get more familiar with straw- bale housing, they 11 look much more kindly on modified post and beam,” says DeYoung. As well, she notes, the load-bearing method limits the options for windows.
Straw-bale houses tend not to have basements, due to the difficulties in keeping the bales from taking in underground moisture. How the foundation for DeYoung’s house was built: a layer of plastic was laid down, then a layer of straw bales – “we packed them individually in garbage bags” — with spaces between, in which bats of fibreglass insulation were laid. Then, a concrete slab was poured on top.

Straw-bale construction seems to have originated from the grass roots, so to speak, rather than arising out of building-industry innovation, like most other unconventional forms of construction. The oldest known straw- bale house was built by George P Burke in 1903 in the Sand-hills of Nebraska, for himself and his family; like home-builders from time imme­morial, he used a locally-available material. The 900-square-foot house was abandoned in 1956, but many other straw-bale structures of a similar vintage continue to exist, happily occupied.

The technique spread from Nebraska to South Dakota and other states before the 1950s but the mod­ern straw-bale movement truly began in the early-mid 1980s. According to information provided by the Ontario Straw Bale Building Coalition (OSBBC), over 100 straw-bale build­ings have been built in Ontario since the mid ’90s.

Ben Polley is the owner of Harvest Homes, the straw-bale construction company employed by Pat DeYoung to build her home.

The company, now entering its fifth year of business builds and renovates straw-bale homes, and sells ecologically-sensitive materials to its clients. Polley employ nine full-time workers, two of whom are apprenticing in order to start their own companies, since “the demand is so much higher than we can satisfy.”

How did Polley get into straw-bale building? “When I was a kid, I was always interested in housing. My parents would go to garage sales and pick up things like Popular Mechanics, which has a lot of articles on alternative housing. I’ve always been interested in alternative housing, though I did know it was straw-bale I’d end up falling in love with.

“I’d heard about it, when I was a kid, on a local Ottawa-area TV show. Fast forward to six years ago — I was at a folk festival outside of Guelph and a high-school teacher delivered a talk on straw-bale construction. He’d had outdoor education class build a straw-bale cabin as part of the curriculum.

“I blathered about it endlessly to my girlfriend at the time, who bought me a book on it for Christmas. Before finished reading it, I’d decided to quit my job and learn how to build straw bale houses, with the intent to build one for myself,  and, hopefully, find a way to make a living at it. That hap­pened in reverse; I found that there were lots of people who needed assis­tance on their straw-bale homes, and so the business was born, and only now am I making my own house.”

Polley also gives hands-on straw- bale building workshops, and does ecologically-sensitive renovations for non-profit groups. For one such group, he taught a 10-day course in Nicaragua in January, to a “combina­tion of local people from a farmers’ co­op, as well as some Canadians, Americans and Europeans. The idea of this is to teach those parts of the work I do that are locally relevant, to adapt to the skills and materials that are available in Nicaragua,” and thus reduce construction costs.

Conventional houses in that country are built mostly of cement block; straw-bale construction allows use of an agricultural waste product that is more often burned in  the fields. (Straw comes from the stalks of grain crops and, unlike hay, cannot be used as animal feed.) “That burning caused enormous forest fires in Mexico a few years ago,” says Polley, citing another environmental advantage.

He identifies his clientele as a breed apart, though he notes that is chang­ing somewhat. “Even just four years ago, when we started, the majority of people hiring us looked at straw-bale building as simple and accessible, pos­sible for anyone to do. But, there’s been a shift from do-it-yourself types to a more mainstream clientele. People, these days, just want to point a finger and say ‘Build me a house that happens to be straw bale’.”

He says that has also meant a shift in why people are choosing straw. In addition to cost-cutting, there’s the environmental benefit of using a waste product to replace a wood product, and in reducing heating and cooling costs.

Regarding insulation, he says: “Our typical straw-bale wall is rated between R35 and R50, two or three times better than a conventional home, which is R14. We’ve never had a client put in an air conditioner, and everybody is saving money on their heating bills.

“The most recent type of client we’ve seen is choosing it because of these things but because it’s aesthetically different, and easy for us to incorporate an artistic flair in a way that you don’t easily get with conventional building. A few of the crew are former fine-arts students, who would not have been attracted to the conventional trades. Nor would I.”

The straw house that Ben Polley is building for himself, finally, is known as “Home Alive” and is usually located at the Everdale Environmental Learning Centre near Hillsburgh, Ontario. However, last fall, it was temporarily moved from its spot at Everdale to a booth at the Toronto Home Show, where it garnered national media attention.

It was here that Pat DeYoung – for whom both environmental and aesthetic factors were important – met Polley and was sold on the idea of a straw-bale house.

Currently living and working in Toronto, she is a psychotherapist, writer and mother of three grown children. She plans to commute from Baysville to Toronto for half of each week, once the home is livable, so as to continue teaching at a psychotherapy training institute in the city.

“I bought the piece of property a few years ago.” she says. Well-treed, it is 47.5 acres and has a “bush feel,” backing onto crown land, while at the same time affording the advantage of being close to a town. “In a pinch, I could walk to Baysville, I wanted to be in the Muskoka kind of feel, not just outside of Toronto in farmland.”

Land in hand, DeYoung says, “I began reading about green concepts for building houses.” She looked at various options. The property didn’t lend itself to an earth-beamed (partially underground) home, and she felt that insulated concrete forms (ICFs) used too much energy in construction.

“I decided a straw-bale house could give me what I wanted. At the Home Show in Toronto, they had a house pretty much built. I hung out in this house and hung out with these people and that sold me. I liked what I felt; I liked the attitude and the feel of the people. They believe in what they’re doing.

“I wanted to billfold something environmentally sustainable, a mix of low-tech and some pretty high-tech stuff. A straw-bale house, for me, is really about technology that makes sense, that doesn’t use a lot of resources – not any more than it has to.

“It’s a completely renewable resource; it’s a waste product. For sustainability, you can’t get a finer material.” As well, she adds, “when living in a climate like Baysville, the insulation factor is amazing. You’d have to build double-wall to get that kind of insulation.

The roof will be covered with shakes made of recycled rubber and hemp fibre, which look like cedar shakes and have a 50 year guarantee, at a similar cost to cedar shakes.

The house is currently heated with in-floor radiant heating;  the heat comes from water run through pipes embedded in the concrete of the floor. The system is currently powered by propane but, DeYoung says, “as soon as I can afford it, I’m going to preheat the water with a solar water heater. It’s wired and plumbed for that already.” She plans to put in a masonry heater, using the most efficient method of heating with wood. As well, there is a passive solar component, she explains “The house faces do south and all the big windows are on the south.” R-60 cellulose insulation in the ceiling completes the existing envelope.

Eventually, DeYoung plans to install solar panels on the roof to generate electricity. “That’s the most expensive part of environmentally-sustainable building,” she says, noting it will be a few years down the road for her. “But, it’s all wired, including a bi-directional meter” – necessary because Ontario Hydro is required to buy electricity back from residences which produce more power than they consume. “In 10-15 years,” she notes, “as the energy crisis mounts, it’s going to get more and more important to pay a lot of attention to this.”

Plans for the home were dawn up by Polley and engineer Kris Dick, in consultation with DeYoung. Construction began last July, and DeYoung hopes to have the house ready to obtain an occupancy permit by fall. “I’m going to do a log of inside work. Trim and tiling, I intend to do myself. I’m 50 and my kids are grown up and I need a hobby. I have a lot of time to take my time.” She expects to have the house comfortable in a year or two.

It is about 2,300 square feet with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, and is built in the form of living spaces for two families, joined by a common area with a cathedral ceiling. “I’m building it to share with family and friends.” she says.

DeYoung is a typical client in another way. Ben Polley notes that women, in particular, seem to be interested in straw-bale construction. Over the years, some 25-30 percent of his building crews have been made up of women – a very high proportion in the construction trades – while the majority of his clients are women.

“I think it’s largely due to accessibility; it seems, somehow, it is something that anyone could learn and doesn’t put people off and scare them,” he says.

Pat DeYoung adds; “Maybe there’s something very basic about it. You put it together like big Lego pieces.”

Or, perhaps it’s the traditionally strong female interest in environmental sustainability. Whatever the reason, women like Pat DeYoung, and like-minded men too,k are passionate about their houses built of straw, and will be able to enjoy them for decades to come, whatever the weather.