house of happy

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Monday, 29 November 2010

The Straw House

Subtitle: A) What they tell you and B) what you find out yourself, afterwards.

A) Straw is a natural, renewable material.
B) Being natural, naturally, it wants to keep growing. Green shoots may sprout out of your straw bales, the ones in the wall and the ones stored in the back garden, for later. Some will see this as an added bonus, with a good wheat crop harvested before the first coat of plaster.
B) Being natural, and being denied further growth, straw will try alternatively to decompose. If – as in our case – a good storm starts the day after the straw wall is up, you will find portions of your home take a sharp turn towards silage.
B) Renewable also refers to you, the homeowner, having to regularly renew the purchase of straw bales. These will be used for wall repairs and also to replace the stack of spare straw bales they told you would be stored safely outside, on a raised platform and covered with a tarpaulin. After a weekend of rain, you will find these limp, grey and sprouting mushrooms. Over a mushroom omelette you will decide to use them for straw bale gardening.

A) A straw bale house is much cheaper to build. Straw bales are inexpensive and abundantly available.
B) You'll start forking out the big dosh later, on all that scooping out and replacing of the wet straw from the silage wall. Straw is not only a renewable material but a frequently renewable cost.

A) Labour costs are also low. Anyone, regardless of experience, can successfully join a straw bale project.
B) Of course, once the volunteers are gone and the straw has sprouted, you will need to hire some local builders at professional rates to replace the wet straw and do a solid plastering job.

A) The work is accessible to people otherwise excluded from the building process. It has an empowering effect on everyone.
B) Exactly. The moment they appear on the building site, they also become straw bale specialists and straw bale enthusiasts. No straw bale is safe thereafter!

A) Straw walls are so densely packed they will be highly resistant to fire.
B) But not to rodents. Despite what the book says, we've seen some happy mouse-families running along our unplastered walls.

A) Straw doesn't cause hayfever, in fact it's the material of choice for many allergy sufferers.
B) I have hayfever. I worked with strawbales. The moment I got within ten feet of one, my eyes leaked, my nose streamed and all conversation had to be done in sneezes: one sneeze for yes, two sneezes for no, complex sneeze sequences for anything else.

There are things as yet unchecked: the thermal performance (highly praised) and how much it'll shave off the heating bill. The acoustic performance – a lot will hinge on this, what with the dogs across the valley. And I hope never to test the fire resistance factor.

Then there are those things that remain undisputed: the joy of not using modern and toxic building alternatives, the incomparable feeling of well-being within a straw bale space, the breathing walls. I look forward to these.

Our straw bale walls are built. And rebuilt. And tweaked a little more. It's been fun and it's not over. Luckily, as winter settles in, the roof is on and the second coat of lime plaster is carbonating nicely. If you check carefully inside the wall, you will find some humid patches. I'm giving them until spring to dry or decompose. Then we'll probably start all over again!

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At 29 November 2010 at 09:57 , Anonymous Rupert Wolfe Murray said...

Fascinating to hear the less enthusiastic version of straw bales. All of this makes perfect sense; I guess they have to be hermetically sealed and treated in some way, but not sure if this is feasible. Romanians say that cirpici (mud and straw bricks to you) are structurally weak and allow rodents in. I also know that those eco concrete blocks, the big grey ones full of air bubbles for good insulation, and also a haven for rats.

But what I really want to know is did you rip out the straw bales and replace them with plaster? Or are you awaiting Moona's return?

And I guess the big question is, will they survive the winter?

At 29 November 2010 at 12:11 , Blogger emwolfem said...

Look, I am still keen on eco-build options, including straw bale, the alternative is so SO much worse, but I wish someone had ALSO warned us of the above details, so we could try to avoid the hidden traps!
I think our straw walls will survive the winter because they now have a roof above and two coats of plaster on the outside. We'll check the humidity levels as we go along...
The alambique wall - where we used straw clay - is in a worse state right now. After more than four months it's still not dry on the inside!! (WISH someone had told me THAT!) And we've had to rip out the bit next to the terrace and replace it with stone and lime mortar! Silly to put straw bales right next to the stone and earth of the terrace which lets the entire rainfall through! WISH someone had thought of that back in August!

Bom dia,

P.S. Some Romanians told me they had to use big sledgehammers and it took them days to destroy an old chirpici house of their granny's... so that says something about the structural strength of the thing. I guess my point in all of this is: if it's well made, it's awesome! Unfortunately we've had to guess every step of the way.

At 29 November 2010 at 17:14 , Anonymous Rupert Wolfe Murray said...

Hey Moona, are you still in Pakistan or are you on site?

At 5 December 2010 at 18:13 , Blogger Magnus said...

Course I'm in Pakistan. Otherwise I'd be the one getting all this straw grief!
Fair points though. Specially for the straw clay walls. If it's true that the main straw bale walls are silage we're toast.
can't If they're dry (as Nikita assures me) then we're good. (as are mouse family who are cosily enjoying them).



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