Serious Straw Bale Homes...No, Seriously.

Think of it: a beautiful home with no mortgage; a house that's environmentally-responsible; a house with almost no heating and cooling costs due to fantastic insulation; and an opportunity to laugh and drink with friends.

It's all possible. And that's the message that straw bale homeowners and enthusiasts have been trying to spread for years. It seems that finally the current mortgage crisis, America's stagnant wages, and the new global green consciousness are combining to create a perfect storm which is leading people back to owner-built straw bale homes.

And let's face it, straw bale homes are beautiful. Don't believe me? A quick search on Flickr will show you how great they can look.

A common misconception about straw bale homes is that they're entirely straw, and the bales are entirely exposed to the elements--leaving them to mold and decay. But that's not so. Straw bale homes have foundations, roofs, and full frames (with some modifications for the bales) just like any other house. But instead of expensive and often toxic building materials (glued plywood, fiberglass insulation, heinous plastic siding, paints, etc.) the exterior walls are stacked piles of finished straw bales. The bales are covered in a natural finish that, when completed, resembles stone or brick material and seals off the straw from the weather--protecting it for hundreds of years.

Michel Bergeron and Paul Lacinski, authors of Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates, have been designing and building straw bale homes for years. In their book, they offer the following additional benefits to living in a straw bale home:

The most compelling among many reasons to build with bales is the quiet beauty of bale walls. Unlike walls of panelized materials, which require layers of ornamentation to bring life to their unnaturally uniform surfaces, bale walls look and feel as if they were made by hand.

Insulation Value
Straw bale houses may look and feel like plastered stone or earth houses, but they are in a different thermal category, entirely. Old stone houses are cold. New stone houses are typically built with foam insulation, either sandwiched between two independent stone walls, or blown onto the inside face of the stone. Both of these methods are quite expensive. Plastered bales, on the other hand, provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction.

Bales are a natural material. Unlike many manufactured building products, they contain no toxic ingredients, and are chemically stable. They will release no unhealthy chemicals into your home, and will not emit poisonous fumes in case of a fire. A relatively small amount of fossil fuel energy is consumed in the production of straw bales, and no toxins are released during the production or installation processes. Straw can eventually be composted back into the soil.

Use of Resources
A great deal of straw is grown around the world every year, enough for millions of houses. Some percentage of this straw should be going back into the soil, ideally mixed with animal manure, which provides the nitrogen necessary for its decomposition. Much of this straw is now burned in the field. By incorporating straw into buildings, we reduce particulate pollution and lock up carbon in a solid state, rather than releasing it as carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas.

"Plastered stone for the person of reasonable means." Have you priced out a stone building lately? Or calculated the time to build one yourself? Most traditional earth and stone building systems have become quite expensive nowadays, because human labor has become expensive, compared with efficient assembly of machine-produced building components. Bale houses are substantially less expensive than real adobes, and look and perform a whole lot better than stick frames masquerading as earth.

Owner-Builder Friendly
Bales will remain a choice material of ownerbuilders, however, because they are so well suited to a "gang of friends" method of construction. Novices are also attracted to the apparent simplicity of the wall system. Even people who have no experience with construction can wrap their minds around the idea of stacking bales. On many occasions, this initial sense that "I can do this!" leads an otherwise intimidated non-builder out of his or her shell, toward a willingness to take on framing, plaster, finish work, and so forth.

Bale construction is fun because its two main components--stacking bales and smearing plaster--lend themselves to work parties. With a good design, careful organization, and the guidance of a few skilled people, it is possible to keep dozens of volunteers engaged in various stages of bale and plaster work. Because the process can be broken down into many distinct tasks, people are free to try different jobs and learn various skills. There are niches to be filled by persons of all levels of physical ability and experience. The synergy of this group effort (not to mention the sheer volume of work possible in a day) is one of the greatest thrills of straw bale construction.

If you're in the market for a home, and don't want to take on a mortgage (or much of one anyway), consider reading up on construction methods, gathering some friends, and building yourself a straw bale house.

J.S. McDougall is the head blogger at Chelsea Green -- a news site and book publisher covering the politics and practice of sustainability.