My interest in alternative building started in my early teens. I was fascinated with all the options, and couldn't see why anyone would want to build a NORMAL house out of toxic materials and then live in it. In Saskatchewan, it makes total sense to build from straw. It's all around us, and if done correctly, it provides twice as much insulation as conventional homes, it's less expensive, it's sustainable, AND it's eco-friendly! When I met my partner Reuben, who happened to be a builder and was also very passionate about alternative building, our move to the country to build a straw bale home happened quickly. We purchased our square straw bales from the neighbours field. Despite common belief that flax is the type of bale preferred for straw bale building, our engineer who researches and teaches straw bale building at the University of Manitoba, believes wheat to be the number one choice. It just so happened our neighbours were growing wheat that year. We were able to purchase the bales for a reduced rate in exchange for picking them up ourselves.
There are two common types of straw bale buildings. Those that are built with a wood frame (non-loadbearing), and Nebraska style, which do not have a wood frame and are loadbearing. We decided to go with a wood frame. It ends up being a little more expensive, but it was easier to get a building permit, and we were able to get a little more creative with the design. However, the Nebraska style is much more environmentally friendly as it uses no wood except for in the roof. We hope to build our garage in Nebraska style next.
The building process was labour intensive, however, it was much less expensive than the cost of building a conventional home. We built the home ourselves, well, mostly my partner, Reuben. We had a couple work bees, where our friends who were interested in the process came out to get involved. It was fun!
We used a lot of salvaged recycled wood in the interior and exterior trims. The final finish of the lime plaster had natural pigments added for colour, and it was then burnished to create an almost glass-like, exquisite look. Other features include our vintage plate mosaic fireplace hearth, our handmade lime plaster bath tub, and our hand-cut end grain hardwood floor. We have lived in the home for just over a year now. It's very warm, it's beautiful, and we are so very proud of it! We hope to work on more straw bale projects in the future, and possibly even start a straw bale building business.
The subject of my straw bale home often comes up in conversation during Rosie & the Riveter interviews. I was surprised to learn that what most people picture when they learn I live in a straw bale home is a tiny hut with a grass roof, something you'd imagine seeing in a third world country. Over the years I have done so much research on straw bale building and other forms of alternative building, that it now seems so obvious and common to me and I forget that it is a total mystery to most. I have heard all sorts of reactions, mostly remarks about the "three little pigs and the big bad wolf". Oh, how that famous children's story has given a completely inaccurate depiction of building a house of straw! Just to be clear, that joke is very over done and not really funny. There are a few very common misconceptions about straw bale homes, and I'm going to take this opportunity to clear them up!
1. Will the big bad wolf come and blow your house down?
It has been proven that straw bale homes are much more likely to withstand earthquakes and tornados than conventional homes. Straw bale walls are very dense, 18 inches thick to be exact. They are then covered with mesh and lime plaster, making it even heavier and stronger.
2. Would a straw bale home be more susceptible to fire?
I suppose if you picture a pile of dry, loose straw, you would imagine it going up in flames quite easily. Also, hay (which is very different from straw) has a reputation for bursting into flames through combustion. However, straw bale homes are actually at least six times more fire-proof than conventional homes. This is because the walls are extremely dense. There is no space or air for the fire to start.
3. What about insects and rodents?
Hay provides a food source for insects and rodents, but straw does not. If a straw bale wall is made correctly, it is completely sealed up with lime plaster which prevents rodents from getting in, and also, the lime plaster itself deters insects. A conventionally built home is more likely to have these sorts of infestations.
4. Do straw bale homes trap humidity, and create mold?
No! The straw bale walls actually "breathe", which prevents moisture from being trapped inside. This is because lime plaster is used. If cement or acrylic plaster or stucco was used then the walls would not breathe, and the moisture would be trapped and create mold. Furthermore, the lime plaster actually prevents mold from occuring!
For more information on straw bale building I recommend checking out the straw bale building guru, Andrew Morrison.
Bye for now!