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Expert Advice on Straw Bale Construction

Read surprising answers to common questions about straw bale construction, an increasingly popular alternative building method.

| February/March 2006

  • Here is a straw bale home in Kanata, Ontario.
    CATHERINE WANEK
  • Here is a straw bale home in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
    CATHERINE WANEK
  • Straw bale houses are cozy, attractive, affordable, energy efficient and can be designed in different architectural styles. Here is a straw bale home in Routt County, Colo.
    PHOTO: LAURA TAYLOR
  • The traditional “truth” window reveals a straw bale, providing evidence of the home’s building material.
    JAN COHEN
  • Half Wall
    In this straw bale home, a half-wall has been creatively placed to provide divisions of space without spoiling the room’s spaciousness.
    DAVID PATTERSON PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Thick, rounded straw bale walls provide ample space for wide window sills on which to grow plants or sit and enjoy the view. Log timbers in the ceiling act as floor joists for the second story of this home.
    LAURA TAYLOR
  • Lines of this Ontario straw bale home echo the churches and schools of the area’s early settlers.
    CATHERINE WANEK
  • The walls of this unique passive solar home, located outside of Huntsville, Ontario, are made with straw bales, demonstrating one of the many ways bales can be incorporated into home design.
    LILKER HECHT DESIGN STUDIO WITH STONES THROW DESIGN
  • “More Straw Bale Building” is a complete guide to building a straw bale home.
    NEW SOCIETY PUBLISHERS

  • Half Wall

Houses made from straw bales are attractive, affordable, energy efficient, environmentally friendly and can be designed to match the owners’ personal needs, aesthetics and budget. These homes are made by stacking rectangular bales of straw and covering them with a plaster shell. Straw bale walls are at least twice as energy efficient as those from conventional stick-frame construction and will save you money on heating and cooling bills. Such savings are among many reasons why straw bale construction is no longer a fringe idea, but one that has spread throughout North America and the rest of the world. Other attractions include its adaptability, hands-on building satisfaction and the cozy atmosphere created inside these homes.

With this recent surge in popularity, the collective knowledge built from the successes and mistakes in this grass-roots movement has helped the technique evolve — we now know much more about what works and what doesn’t. So before you decide if straw bales are right for your dream home, heres’ expert insight into common questions about fire resistance, moisture, pests, building costs, mortgages, insurance and resale value.



Fire Resistance

Straw bale walls are naturally fire resistant. Loose, dry straw is combustible, but when it is compacted into bales, there’s not enough air for the straw to burn well. For a good analogy, compare the combustibility of a single sheet of newsprint to that of an entire telephone directory. A single sheet will burn quickly, but a phone book will just smolder. Combining plaster with the compactness of a bale wall enhances fire resistance. The plaster coating effectively seals the already fire-resistant bales inside a noncombustible casing. According to fire safety tests conducted by the National Research Council of Canada, bale walls withstood temperatures up to 1,850 degrees for two hours.

RENEEB
4/25/2015 12:27:05 PM

Reading through the comments I see one person using rice straw. I was going to say I have seen rodent damage in any hay or straw we have always had so I doubt that rodent damage is eliminated/minimized with straw bale construction. However rice straw which is very available in our area might be different. So that question is off the table. I have 2 other questions: what about moisture in the bales themselves? There must be some moisture in the bales. the last question is how does one hang pictures in straw bale construction? Picture moulding? I can't imagine that it's good to poke holes in the plaster and expose the straw. Thanks!


Donald
4/22/2015 6:36:13 PM

I use rice straw bales as a very strong wall around my outside space. It has been up for nearly 10 years without any problems. The space is 50' by 70'. Rice straw has a silica base and nothing I have seen eats it. My horses will eat just about anything and they won't give it a second look. My wall cost $4000 which included transport to my house, unloading, and placement of the bales. The main cost is transportation. The bales themselves are cheap (between 15 to 20 dollars for 1500 lb bale).


Katie
11/21/2013 3:28:54 PM

Can you build bales with cob over an existing home? My house had been on fire before I bought it, and the previous owner did not use insulation. Thus, my zone 5 home is only tolerable upstairs during Winter with the thermostat set at 55 and it is 70 upstairs. Vice verse in Summer. Any suggestions?







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