I try to make eco-friendly decisions and be conscious of my carbon footprint, but I’m also a little bit traditional when it comes to things like health and safety.
Maybe traditional isn’t the right word, but rather I’m skeptical of new alternatives. So when a friend recently told me her family was considering building a straw bale home, my response was, “A freaking WHAT?! That sounds stupid.”
So many questions flooded my mind. I understood the meanings of the individual words she said. I know what a bale of straw is, I know what it means to build a home. I had just never heard of the two going together before. She may as well have told me they were going to start cooking old tires for dinner or wearing clothes made of moss. Just, huh?
It turns out that in my years of East Coast, urban living I had simply never encountered this movement that started over a hundred years ago and saw a mini-revival back in the 1990s. In some parts of the American Southwest and Pacific Northwest, standing, functional straw bale homes and structures are relatively more commonplace. Mental images of the Big Bad Wolf aside, they kind of make sense!
As far as being good for the environment, straw bales have many advantages over some other traditional building materials.
Here is a quick list:
- Straw bales homes make use of a waste product. Stalks of straw are what’s left after the edible part of a grain such as wheat or rice has been harvested, and these stalks are often a disposal problem for farmers. When the straw is baled and used as a building material it is receiving a new life.
- Lower energy is required for heating and cooling the home. Straw bales are an excellent source of insulation. When built properly, a structure made from straw bales won’t need as much heat in winter and cooling in summer as houses made from other materials.
- They have a low embodied energy. Embodied energy refers to the energy consumed in providing building construction materials. Whereas other insulation materials such as fiberglass require a lot of energy to produce, straw only requires sunlight. The bailing process and transportation to the building site are the only aspects of this insulation that require energy.
- When the building’s time is up, it can go right back into the earth. Straw bales are 100% biodegradable. If you’ve ever driven around parts of Detroit and seen all the dilapidated, abandoned houses, you’ve got a stronger sense of why this is so cool (No dis to Detroit; it’s a great city!).
All of those points show that when done right, straw bale homes are a great route to take for sustainable living. But how plausible is it for the average person to set about doing this?
First let’s talk cost. Just like with building any new home the costs vary. Without providing exact numbers, experts all seem to say building a straw bale home is around the same cost as building a traditional house of comparable size.
It should be noted, though, that due to the thickness of the walls, straw bale homes have less usable square footage. If you compensate by making the home bigger, the cost goes up for straw bale homes in achieving the same usable square footage. You also may pay more for building permits, as some states don’t recognize straw bales as building materials.
Permits may be an initial increase in cost, but the savings you rack up over time in heating and cooling costs can help offset that burden. Also of note, a guy in Scotland built a small hut-like straw bale home for just over $6,000, so it does seem like building with straw bales is doable, whatever your budget is.
Next topic: Safety. I hear straw bale home and immediately think, “House fire!” Well, it turns out that straw bale homes, due to the density of their walls, are actually more flame resistant than conventional homes with open stud bays. You can read more about the science behind it here. Also, there have been ZERO reports of Big Bad Wolf attacks.
How long will the home last? If I were to consider building a straw bale home, which I totally am now, this might be a sticking point for me. I love the idea of a house being passed through generations. When built and maintained properly the life of a straw bale home can be up to 100 years, which is significantly less than conventional houses.
It’s still a long time, though. Whether or not it is “worth it” would have to be a personal choice and belief. 100 years from now there will probably be even better sustainable options available, and maybe future generations will be stoked that the old structures can go back into the Earth. (I’m picturing Detroit again, sorry.)
Just as with building or renovating any home, there are hundreds of questions that go into it, and hundreds of variables that get brought up in trying to find answers. Fortunately for this resurgence of the straw bale home movement there are plenty of resources online. Articles, video tutorials and expert advice are all just a click away.
I don’t know if I’ve been convinced into building my own straw bale home, but it has entered the ring of possibilities. Even if it’s not the right choice for me, I like knowing that sustainable housing is an issue that more and more people are starting to become aware of and consider, including myself.
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