Building a Home Using Straw Bale Construction

Solid, rugged, inexpensive, and twice as fire-proof as conventional lumber, straw bale construction is an idea who's time has come.

| December 1995/January 1996

Straw bale construction can be used in almost any climate to create a comfortable home. 

Building a Home Using Straw Bale Construction

The low afternoon sun cast a warm, rich light on the straw bale walls of a newly completed structure. A mixed group of men, women, and children, most of whom had never built before, sat suspended in a sudden silence, admiring the space they had created over just the past few days. It was the summer of 1990, and we had just organized, through our nonprofit organization The Canelo Project, one of the first straw bale workshops at our home in the Canelo Hills of southeastern Arizona. At that time the only straw bale buildings were a few scattered historic structures, mostly in Nebraska, and a handful of simple structures built by modern straw bale pioneers.  

Five years later we estimate that the number of new straw bale structures exceeds 400. Scattered throughout Australia, Canada, France, Mexico, Norway, and the United States, as well as remote sites in Mongolia and Russia, these buildings range from small, cozy cottages to large, multiple-story, elegant homes. Throw in the number of proposed projects in progress, and the number jumps to several thousand. Modest growth, to be sure, but when it is considered that a bureaucratic mountain must be moved every time local building codes are wrestled to allow for this "primitive" design, the number of projects is startling.

The lesson is quickly being learned that straw bales are an extraordinary material for building, a use for which they were never intended. Straw bale construction is superbly energy efficient, environmentally safe, fun, simple to work with, and can be used to build structures that are durable, innovative, and beautiful. With a high level of owner, family, and friend involvement, common sense, and the incorporation of recycled, salvaged, and local materials, the cost of a straw bale structure can also be very low. What's more, it will be significantly better insulated (R-40 to R-60), more comfortable, and typically have a greater degree of aesthetic character than a home built from a standard 2 x 6 frame. We have seen bale structures cost anywhere from $5 a square foot to well over $100 a square foot, depending upon the luxuries thrown in. Many of these bale homes have received building permits, have been bank financed and are completely insured.

How Does Straw Hold Up a Wall?

Straw refers to the leftover stems of harvested cereal grains (wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye), which is sometimes used as bedding for animals, but is often viewed as a waste product and simply burned. Bales can also be made from other fibrous materials, such as bean or corn stalks, pine needles, or any kind of grass. Many of the first bale buildings were constructed from baled meadow grass. With no trees to build with, necessity truly became the mother of invention and early settlers built with the only thing they could-the sea of prairie grass that surrounded them.

To build with straw bales requires a good understanding of the basic characteristics of straw and how it behaves as a building material. In general, straw and other natural fibers have low compressive strength but when twisted, interwoven, bundled, baled or combined with other materials like clay, their compressive strength improves dramatically and they can then be used for a variety of structural and nonstructural building applications. However, it is important to remember that despite the improvement in strength, bales do compress under loads. The more compact the bale, the less it will compress. Bales you use for building should be solid, compact, and keep their shape when you handle them, especially if they will be asked to support the kind of bearing walls that we will ask them to.

6/3/2013 3:01:20 PM

Paja Construction has been building affordable and sustainable straw bale homes for over 22 years. Check out their website for photos and more information

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