Straw Struck!

Building with bales has some surprising natural advantages, and BC is catching on.

By Maarten Dankers 9 Aug 2013 |

Maarten Dankers currently runs a market garden in Langley called Vanley Fresh Foods. He was originally introduced to straw bale construction while living at OUR Ecovillage on Vancouver Island in 2011. Disclosure: Maarten worked as a researcher for the Alternative Solution Resource Initiative in Victoria.

Huff'n'puff as he might, Mr. Wolf won't be roasting any piglet's pork loins from this straw house. For many people, straw bale homes conjure up imagery of shoddy hippie shacks or flimsy wolf-blown flats. These misconceptions quickly disappear for anyone who steps inside the Orofino Winery, near Cawston, B.C. The tasting room offers respite from the sweltering summer heat, and has a sturdy, fortress-like feel. You can't immediately tell it's made of straw -- the walls are covered in textured soft-hued stucco, and there's a lofty slanted ceiling with deep skylights. It's the "truth window" -- a wood-framed unplastered section of wall -- that reveals the strawy veracity of it all.

Winery owner John Weber is a former high school teacher from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Along with his wife Virginia, he moved to the B.C. interior in 2001 because he felt ready for a change of scenery, and started building the winery in 2004. The father of two decided to build with straw because of the environmental benefits, along with its ability to keep temperatures constant. Weber says reaction from visitors has been fantastic. "People love it. It feels very natural and healthy, looks great, and fits the neighbourhood."  

The myth of straw bale as an inferior building material is gradually changing as an increasing number of people in B.C. start to use natural, renewable materials to build their homes. Compared to conventional buildings, straw bale structures are a more sustainable option -- they're more energy efficient due to the high insulation value of straw, which buffers temperature extremes. A 2002 study by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) found that straw bale homes use 20 per cent less space heating than conventional houses. Compared to synthetic insulation it's less toxic, and much less energy is required to produce it. Another plus: straw doesn't have seed heads which attract hungry pests -- that's hay. 

Grow your own home

A report released this June by the Alternative Solution Resource Initiative (ASRi) in Victoria aims to make it easier for people to get their bale homes permitted and built in accordance with the B.C. Building Code, which currently makes no mention of straw bale. Materials like straw are addressed under the "alternative solutions" section of the code. The Vancity-funded report is geared towards the entire building community, from homeowners and contractors to architects and engineers. It compiles results from studies and testing done on straw bale structures around North America and beyond. 

ASRi president Dawn Smith says the report has had a very warm reception since it was released, and that "experienced professionals have said it will help, they want a copy and are recommending it to others." Straw bale is gaining momentum across Canada, Smith says, especially in Ontario and the Prairies. "In B.C. it's growing in the Nelson area, and on the West Coast it's increasing a little here and there, but more people are building without permits, so it's often off the radar, and hard to tell how quickly it's growing."

Sam Ellison is a building official for the Regional District of Central Kootenay. Since 2007 he's inspected about 20 straw bale homes in the Nelson area. Ellison says getting a building permit usually isn't a problem "as long as you can prove that what you're proposing to build is safe and healthy." But he also cautions that building with bales is an involved and labour intensive process. He says another reason straw bale hasn't caught on yet is because people are misinformed. Ellison says the ASRi resource will be particularly useful for those who are interested in straw bale, but whose understanding of the building process is limited. The document will help direct them so they're not trying to reinvent the wheel.

Most permitted straw bale structures in B.C. are non-load bearing. That means the building has a traditional structural frame which is then filled in with straw bales. Straw bale construction always goes hand-in-hand with plaster -- it's necessary to cover the bales to prevent them from getting wet, and to improve the structural integrity of the wall. Plasters are usually either cement-lime stucco, lime, or earthen. Choosing the most suitable plaster depends on building standards, climatic conditions, material availability, as well as personal preference. 

As with any building material, different design considerations need to be taken into account depending on the local climate. It makes more sense to build with straw in places where it's readily available. Building official Ellison says some people have concerns about straw rotting, but that doesn't seem to be an issue with properly constructed bale homes. "If a roof leaks you've got a problem, no matter of what kind of construction method you're using." ASRi's Smith says there's a lot of evidence that straw bale can be a good building material in places like the wet West Coast. That said, Smith admits straw isn't grown in abundance near her residence in Victoria, but adds "we don't grow a lot of fibreglass either," which is used for conventional insulation. The price of a straw bale house is generally on par with normal construction, because insulation is only around 10 per cent of the total cost of a building.

Surprise advantages

For now, straw bale homes exist mainly in rural settings, but they're starting to pop up in urban environments too. In Nelson there are at least two within city limits, and in 2009, a man named Habib Gonzalez spearheaded the construction of a straw bale triplex in Edmonton, Alberta. Gonzalez is sometimes regarded as the straw bale guru in Western Canada, and has been involved in over 100 projects. He doesn't hesitate to answer with an affirmative "yes" when asked if straw bale is becoming more mainstream, but stresses the importance of speaking the language of conventional construction. "There are a lot of people doing their own thing in the bush, but we don't learn anything that way" he says. "If people get the idea that straw bale is simply insulation, then building professionals can see there are advantages for their clients." 

The Edmonton triplex is an interesting case study -- one dweller reported spending only $31 for heating in the middle of winter. "You get super-insulated performance for the price of a conventional building" says Gonzalez. He's also quick to mention there was an arson attempt on the building. "It went absolutely nowhere." That's a good thing, because now the fire department believes straw bale walls can resist fire. Topping the triplet of preferable properties is acoustic insulation. One of the triplex residents is the principal harpist for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. "She's practicing all the time" says Gonzalez, "her neighbour happens to be the conductor, and they can't hear each other. It's relatively soundproof." That's a big advantage in a city.

Gonzalez hasn't had any requests for straw bale projects in Vancouver or Victoria. That might be because 20-inch thick bale walls make for a large footprint, which isn't appealing in cities with space constraints. He also thinks it hasn't become more widespread because it's intimidating to jump through all the legal hoops. "And you have to convince your family you're not nuts" he adds. "But after they see the building they love it. They absolutely love it."

Gonzalez is also the man who inspired the Orofino Winery. When wine-master Weber was originally looking into natural building methods, his mother-in-law forwarded an article on straw bale. "It happened to have Habib's phone number, so I called him up," says Weber. "Habib has a very evangelical presence." For the tasting room, he came and ran a workshop with a bunch of participants. All of the bale work was done in five days by 26 people -- first a couple days of stacking bales, then a few days of plastering. "Once you figure out a few tricks, it's like building with lego," says Weber.

For the fermentation building, he recruited a few of his former students from Saskatchewan. "Four guys I used to coach came to help out." Weber recalls how they stayed in his basement and were happy to help. "They climbed up 3 stages of scaffolding, I handed them a trowel and they started working. It's not rocket science. Anyone can do it."   [Tyee]

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