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Can You Really Build With Straw Bales?

Can you really build with straw, will it fall down, won’t it catch on fire?  All very usual questions asked by anyone hearing about straw bale building for the first time.   Straw bales can be used to build with like any other material, but it has a lot of advantages.   It’s eco-friendly, much easier and more versatile to build with than other materials. From small, temporary accommodation, to houses, offices and schools with all the mod-cons of twenty first century living, you really can build with straw bales. It won’t catch on fire as the straw is rendered so no air can get in, and with proper maintenance, it can last a few hundred years, very similar to the many cob buildings that are here in the Blackmore Vale.

A major factor of  building sustainably is using materials with low carbon footprints and reducing the transportation of materials to the build site, often from abroad. Did you know that there is enough straw in the UK to build approximately one million houses a year – an amazing use of what is considered to be an agricultural waste product.  Like all growing plants it absorbs carbon, but later, if the straw is burnt or left to rot, that carbon which was locked into the straw would be released back into the atmosphere.  By building with the straw, the carbon remains ‘locked in’.

Despite the environmental advantages, most people still want a convenient and comfortable home.  Contrary to popular belief, a straw bale house can be just that.  Straw is breathable, and if lime rendered you have a breathable building which makes for a very healthy living space.  They are also highly insulating, nearly double that of a cement building and provide natural sound proofing.  It is easy to build both curved and straight walls from straw, and it lends itself well to modern stylish home design; internal high ceilings, sky lights, window seats, and wide external porches.

Straw built houses are ideal for any self build project and the ‘building site’ is usually a far cry from your normal site. Most straw bale builds need at least one or two people who really know what they are doing, with friends, family or volunteers to help with the labour.  The process of straw bale building is usually a lot of fun, labour intensive, but simple.  Unlike the UK’s mainstream building industry, it is very easy for women to get involved and take on builds themselves, or anyone with no prior knowledge of the building process.  Straw bale buildings are lightweight and flexible so low impact foundations can be used, reducing the need for concrete in the ground.  The building itself can be constructed in two ways, load bearing or timber framed. I would recommend and often build using a hybrid of the two methods, which combines the advantages of both.

However, it must be noted, if your straw bale building is not constructed with good building practise, the building will fail.  Straw bales houses are more vulnerable to poor construction.  Like cob buildings, they need ‘dry boots and a good hat’, in other words, dry foundations and wide eaves.  They are only good if they are built properly.

Another belief is that eco-friendly houses cost more, in fact straw bale houses can actually be cheaper.  A three bedroom straw house could be built at just a third of the cost of a similar brick house.  Of course, the specifications of every house is different in both materials and finish, so you will need an estimate based on your plans.   The cost isn’t the only good news, in my experience, building control will be very supportive, and equally, the planning system will welcome any eco-friendly building.

You may wonder why you haven’t heard more about straw bale building, and why there aren’t many around.  The reason is that up to now, straw bale building has been seen to be the choice of the ‘fringe of society’ and not always built properly.   But, straw bale building has been developed to incorporate modern building techniques, and now, houses are being built to meet the needs of the occupants as well as the environment.   Straw bale building is now presenting a  very good opportunity to provide affordable, low cost housing. Buckland Newton in West Dorset is currently pioneering a low cost housing scheme where pre-fabricated straw and timber houses will be used to solve the housing crisis within the village.

In and around the Blackmore Vale we are faced with similar problems, there is a real need for affordable homes in rural areas.  Straw bale and timber construction provides a unique solution to these problems, backed up by a planning policy that allows these buildings, limited in size with strict build criteria, in rural situations.

By Rob Buckley
Dorset Centre for Rural Skills