How a Straw Bale House Can Change the World

Written by Andrew Morrison

Straw Bale House exposed raftersWhen most people think about building a straw bale house, they might not think about changing the world. That’s exactly what’s possible though, and on more levels than you may have first considered. Most people who have done their research will be well aware that a straw bale house is beautiful, energy efficient, sound proof, healthy, fire resistant, and incredibly comfortable to live in. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s take a look at how a straw bale house can have a big impact on the health of the occupants and can ultimately change the world.

Occupant Health

As an occupant of a straw bale house, you have the advantage of living in a really healthy space. It’s no secret that conventional housing is full of toxins, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can make you sick. A straw bale house, if properly designed and built with the right materials, can be free from those VOCs and other toxins. I want to make the point here that simply adding straw bales as your insulation does not mean that you’ll have a healthy house. There are a lot of other systems and materials that come together to make a house, so be sure to pay attention to the details from day one to the last day of your build. There’s no sense, for example, in creating a beautiful straw bale house only to install highly toxic countertops, floors, and wall finishes. Each and every one of those details matters and will impact the overall quality and health of the home.

Higher R-value

The higher the R-value of a structure, the more efficient the building is. That’s a very simple description of why R-values matter. On a per-inch basis, straw bales are not a stellar insulation material; however, there is much more to the picture here. First of all, bale walls are thick, so there are enough inches to make the “per-inch” value work well. What’s more, the plaster skins add a level of thermal mass to the structure. This additional layer of thermal storage keeps the interior climate stable, by eliminating the high-low swings that are typical in conventional construction.

And wait…if you buy now, there’s even more! Sorry, I could’t help but start to hear this section as an infomercial. 🙂 But seriously, straw bale construction really IS that exciting!

Another amazing piece of the straw bale house efficiency puzzle is the lack of thermal bridging across the walls. I consider this to be perhaps the most impactful detail of the wall system. Consider that a conventional house is said to have R-21 walls. In reality, there is R-21 insulation in between the studs and those studs themselves form cold joints in the wall. Wood has an Rvalue of R-1 per inch, so a standard 2×6 covered with 1/2″ plywood only offers R-6. With studs placed every 16″ to 24″ in the wall, you can see how those cold joints quickly lower the effective R-value of the wall system.

Straw bale walls, on the other hand, encapsulate the framing within the bales. There are several ways to build a straw bale house, and different framing systems are used around the world. Some systems opt to increase speed and ease of construction while losing some ground on the thermal bridging. Others focus on creating the most energy efficient straw bale house, with increased labor as a result. How you choose to build is a reflection of your intentions, budget, values, and desires. It is possible to build a straw bale house with no thermal bridging at all in the wall systems, other than at windows and doors with minimal increases in labor efforts. The combination of thick walls, thermal mass, and no thermal bridging makes a straw bale wall an incredibly efficient system.

Minimizing Toxic Materials

By starting with healthy materials, you not only minimize what’s in your straw bale house, but also minimize the need to create those toxic materials to begin with. As we all know, we live in a supply and demand society, certainly here in the States. The more there is a positive response to a product (i.e. sales go up), the more that product is created. The same is true in both directions though and the more sales go down, the less product is ultimately created. If we as consumers need less of the toxic materials that have found their way into almost every aspect of conventional residential construction, then less will be created moving forward.

Carbon Sequestration

Straw bale houseThere’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the power of carbon sequestration to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Capturing carbon in long-term storage solutions such as a straw bale house, can mitigate some of the causes of climate change. This is another advantage of using a waste product: straw, to build with. The grains have already been grown and the straw discarded. When that straw rots, is burnt, or otherwise degrades, its carbon is released back into the atmosphere. On the other hand, if hundreds of bales are used to build a house, those bales won’t degrade and will store their carbon for the lifespan of the house.

I think of it this way: We are already growing and consuming a lot of grains that produce straw as a bi-product. We are also already building houses on a huge scale (relative to the recent past). Let’s put those two things together on a large scale to not only create beautiful straw bale houses, but also to store significant amounts of carbon within the walls. It goes beyond just the carbon stored within the straw bale house too. Because of the high energy efficiency of the home, less fossil fuels are needed to condition the interior space, thus lowering the home’s carbon footprint even more.

Depending on the plaster used, you can even grab a little more carbon from the atmosphere. Lime plaster experiences a chemical change as it cures. It absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it within the structure of the lime crystals as they attempt to rebalance themselves with their environment. That additional pull from the atmosphere is another point of sequestration that furthers the ability of a straw bale house to actually improve the environment around it.

Lifecycle Impacts

The lifecycle of any product we use or shelter we build is something to consider when making choices as a consumer. A home built of natural materials has a much lower lifecycle impact than one made of toxic and/or non-degradable materials. This is true during the build, during the lifespan of the home, and after its eventual demise (yes, all things must eventually die). Because a house built of natural materials is, well…natural materials, it’s able to decompose and return to the elements in a much more natural process. In other words, a house that can decompose (when its time has finally come, mind you…) will minimize the introduction of waste into the landfills. Something our planet most desperately needs.

Cost to Operate

Straw bale houseA straw bale house is less expensive to operate and maintain than a conventional home of the same size. Owners typically pay up to 75% less than conventional homes for utilities when comparing apples to apples based on home square footage. With less monthly costs to manage, there’s less need to make money. Living more simply and within one’s means translates into more free time, more time with family, less stress, and less time on the road to and from work. Not something you might initially consider when discussing wall types, the impact of requiring less money in your day to day life should not be underestimated.

Having more free time means you have more space in your life to connect with the people and things that you love. It means bringing to the forefront the things that truly matter and finding ways to connect with the world around us. This focus and connection is a powerful thing that can foster improved physical health, lowered stress levels, increased joy, and can generally improve one’s lifestyle. All this from living a more affordable, cost effective life.

Straw Bale House
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Building a straw bale house will increase connections with friends and family from the start of the project. I’ve yet to hear of someone building one who hasn’t found themselves constantly answering questions like: “why build with bales?” and “how does the process work?” and “can I come by and check it out?”. Each of these questions leads people closer and closer to the project and can often end up in people offering their help along the way. The “barn raising” concept is often referenced for people building a straw bale house. Whether it be a group of friends coming by to help out or an organized workshop full of helping hands, straw bale projects are known for bringing people together.

There’s something special about building a house with the help of others. It’s a primal experience to construct shelter with our own hands and something that is often lost of our population. Getting your hands in on a build is inspiring, especially when you experience with a group of other likeminded folks who too find themselves inspired. For me, teaching workshops is by far the very best part of my job. The energy that comes together, builds, and stays connected even long after the week-long class ends is something many of us don’t get to experience in our daily lives. I’m blessed to say that I DO get to experience that. I truly hope that you’ll jump in and join us at one of our workshops this year so that you can experience it too.

How This All Changes the World

I hope you can see how much bigger this all is than simply building a straw bale house. There are so many levels involved from the start of construction (or even the design phase) to the very last moment the house decays back to the earth that make a straw bale house a healthier choice. And not just a healthier choice for the inhabitants, but also for the planet. I believe strongly that we all have to do our part to have a positive impact on our global climate. I don’t like to say things like “you should” or “you have to”, but at this stage of the game, with the obvious signs of climate change rearing their heads almost daily, I don’t think we have a choice anymore. So for me it’s a must: live simply, build efficiently, create a healthy and happy life, work less, connect with what REALLY matters, use less toxic materials and fossil fuels, and inspire those around you to do the same. In this way, the simple act of building a house can, and has, become so much more.

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