Huff and Puff, But Can't Blow Straw Houses Down

Written by Posted On Sunday, 02 April 2006 17:00

It may seem like the most unlikely source of materials for building a house, but over the past few years more homeowners are realizing hay isn't just for horses.

It's estimated that there are 600-700 straw bale homes in California. And in the past few years in Calaveras County, more than 30 straw bale homes have been built.

"There are a couple of wineries in Healdsburg and San Luis Obispo that have straw bales for their buildings because of the temperature control that it allows," says Maurice Bennett, executive director of the California Straw Building Association.

The concept is not new. Bennett says in the early 1900s Nebraska farmers didn't have trees and sod so they used straw bales to build their homes. The concept was lost after that and eventually resurfaced in the early 1980s in a Southwest revival. In 1996, the non-profit California Straw Building Association was formed by a group of architects and contractors.

Those who support straw bale homes say using it to construct homes helps the environment too.

"Farmers grow a lot of rice in California. The straw that's left over after the rice is harvested has a very high silica content so the farmers can't plow it back under -- it just clogs up the fields, so they were burning the straw," explains Bennett.

But the Environmental Protection Agency in California put an end to that in the early 1990s because of air pollution. "So people started looking around for ways to use it and building with bales is one way," says Bennett.

"We're trying really hard to set an example to the youth of this world by being good to the environment. We're trying to make a difference and we think that straw is one way to begin," says Joy Bennett, executive director for the association.

There are two ways to build with straw. One is called post and beam straw-built house where the post and beam carry the roof load -- basically the straw is just used as an in-fill for insulation.

"The other way is what we call load-bearing where you build a straw bale wall and that straw bale wall actually carries the roof load. This is the preferred way because you're using a lot less wood and [non-environment- supporting] material," says Bennett.

Then stucco-wire and stucco are applied to the walls. Bennett prefers to use earthen plasters such as lime in order to be kinder to the environment.

Another benefit of using straw bale is that more insulation can be put into the home. Higher insulation is determined by a higher R-Value number; in straw homes it's not quite double that of a standard built home.

"A standard frame wall has an R-19 value. The state of California says that we can use R-32 as the [insulation] value for straw bales. It's insulated in heat and cold, so you save on utility bills,"

The association says that building a straw-built home may cost you a little more to build than a frame house. "However, if you amortize the energy savings over the life cycle of the house it brings it back down to parity," says Bennett. He also points out that most homeowners also participate in the building process, so there is a reduction in labor costs. That, coupled with the energy savings, can make the cost of building a straw bale house less expensive.

Another concern is that a straw bale home will be easy to burn down. Experts say that's not true. Bales are packed so tightly together and then covered in plaster that there is little oxygen available for fire.

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Phoebe Chongchua

Phoebe Chongchua is an award-winning journalist, an author, customer service trainer/speaker, and founder of Setting the Service Standard, a customer service training and consulting program offered by Live Fit Enterprises (LFE) based in San Diego, California. She is the publisher of Live Fit Magazine, an online publication that features information on real estate/finance, physical fitness, travel, and philanthropy. Her company, LFE, specializes in media services including marketing, PR, writing, commercials, corporate videos, customer service training, and keynotes & seminars. Visit her magazine website:

Phoebe's articles, feature stories, and columns appear in various publications including The Coast News, Del Mar Village Voice, Rancho Santa Fe Review, and Today's Local News in San Diego, as well as numerous Internet sites. She holds a California real estate license. Phoebe worked for KGTV/10News in San Diego as a Newscaster, Reporter and Community Affairs Specialist for more than a decade. Phoebe's writing is also featured in Donald Trump's book: The Best Real Estate Advice I Ever Received and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying Foreclosures. She is the author of If the Trash Stinks, TAKE IT OUT! 14 Worriless Principles for Your Success.

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