Straw bale: an enduring building technique

Issue 18 Words: Paul Downton

Whether you’re planning a sleek or rustic-looking house, straw bales are a low cost and sustainable building material with flexibility.

What has an accredited fire resistance of two hours, is more resistant to vermin and rot than most timber, and provides insulation values that comfortably exceed the most stringent demands of the building code? The answer is rendered straw bale – and as a sustainability bonus, when the building’s life is over, most of its walls can be turned into mulch.

The rise of straw bales

Straw bale building has been around for over a century. The oldest surviving buildings date back to the early twentieth century, when pioneering farmers in the Nebraska Sandhills facing a dearth of trees found the local soil made poor building material. The most famous historical example of a straw bale building is a church, built in 1928, listed in the US National Register of Historic Places – it is still in use today.

A straw bale house can look “alternative” or blend in completely with neighbouring suburban properties.

The modern straw bale movement dates from the early 1980s, when the rediscovery of bale building was fuelled by renewed interest in ecological building. In the early 1990s a book called The Straw Bale House by Athena Steen, Bill Steen and David Bainbridge became a manifesto for the growing movement towards healthy, affordable, environmentally responsible building.

More information on straw bale building

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Cover of Issue 18
You can read more about Straw bale: an enduring building technique in Issue 18 of Sanctuary magazine.

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Composting toilets can be installed in boats, motor-homes, regular homes and sheds built on concrete slabs.

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