The Ultra-Ecological House

As our environmental challenges mount—from wildfires to hurricanes—one solution, largely ignored thus far, may lie in using straw bales for home-building. Now comes October, the one-year anniversary of Northern California’s first historic fires, followed by a summer of much, much worse. Has the lowly straw bale’s time finally come?

By MEA MCNEIL

Since the early years of the strawbale renaissance, in the 1970s, when simple, shoe-box designs were the norm, strawbale architects have become more sophisticated. This residence in Sonoma, California, is one example. photo courtesy of John Swearingen/Skillful Means

One warm night last October, Ed Doody awoke abruptly to see trees, just yards away from his window, burning like paper. The blaze was one of a dozen historic fires last year in Northern California; this one had quickly swept north into Doody’s neighborhood in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley. A fierce wind whipped the flames directly toward Doody’s house, which was constructed with straw bales. Doody and his dog sought refuge in a charred clearing where they were pelted by hale-like embers. By the time this fire was out, it had burned 36,523 acres, destroyed nearly 500 homes, and taken eight lives, four on Doody’s ridge. But Doody’s strawbale house was left standing.

By this October, a new, thousand-fold larger conflagration, the largest in California history, had already burned over the summer just a few miles away, and experts promise more to come.

Meanwhile, in Joshua Tree, a giant, cactus-studded park 650 miles south, in the California desert, lies another strawbale house with a magnificent vaulted ceiling. Built 16 years ago for the late composer Lou Harrison, the home sits near six earthquake faults that have produced two major earthquakes in the past decade. Smaller quakes shake this area about 600 times a year, yet Harrison’s house, and its vaulted ceiling, have held just fine.

In October, 2017, one of the Northern California fires burned Edward Doody’s house up to the walls. Against one wall, a basket of firewood blazed for an hour. By the time the fire had gone out, the walls had sufferened nothing more than some discolored plaster. photo courtesy of Edward Doody

What’s going on here? Here’s a building material that’s not only tough, it’s also plentiful, easily renewable, and non-toxic from start to finish. As we will soon see, it can help stop climate change, by gathering a lot of the airborne carbon dioxide that contributes to the greenhouse effect (a process called sequestration). Strawbale walls also hold up well against gale-force winds, like those that recently devastated the Carolinas. As environmental challenges of this nature accumulate, why aren’t we making greater use of this stuff? Shouldn’t straw be housing the world?

STRAW HOMES, REINVENTED

After strawbale workshops, builder David Eisenberg was constantly astounded by the reactions. “People would be brought to tears. I’d walk away thinking, ‘What is this? This is [just] a wall system.’”

The Harrison house is frameless—called “Nebraska style” after the turn-of-the-20th– century houses built on homesteads in the state’s Sandhills prairie. With no trees for structure and sandy earth that would not hold sod, the settlers stacked baled straw out of desperation. The houses proved comfortable in extreme heat and cold, and, by one account, quiet enough for a card game in a tornado. An exodus from the Sandhills during the Depression left behind a building method that was cheap, functional but seen as déclassé.

If anything, a strawbale home might be one of the most timeless designs. When masters deliberate the meaning of craftsmanship, they often talk about durability—the idea that, in order to have integrity, the items you make must stand the test of time, both functionally and aesthetically. A strawbale home might be a pretty good example of this principle.

No one is sure who started the modern straw bale building revival. Some point to the publication, in 1973, of Shelter, a book of yurts, domes, and divine proportions; the book had one page devoted to old baled “hay” structures. Another story is that when a Sandhills church wall was repaired in 1976, a window was added to show visitors its strawbale makings. Whatever the case, these “truth windows” (called “honesty windows” in the U.K.), became part of a new tradition that spread spontaneously. Within a couple of years, Matts Myhrman and the late Judy Knox, a pair of Arizona strawbale advocates who are called the grandparents of the revival, started teaching the technique.

Baleheads, as strawbale builders are sometimes called, have long had no codified philosophy, just a set of shared, passionate values. David Eisenberg, a former contractor who got in early on the strawbale revival, traces that to Knox. After a workshop, when Knox would gather the dozen or so participants to meet inside the structure that they’d built that day, “Every time I was astounded,” he said. “People would be brought to tears. I’d walk away thinking, ‘What is this? This is [just] a wall system.’”

This strawbale house in Joshua Tree, California, was designed for Lou Harrison, an innovative and highly eclectic composer. The house sits in an active earthquake zone, and its vaulted ceiling was designed to take advantage of the resiliency of straw bales. photo courtesy of John Swearingen/Skillful Means

Perhaps Knox had tapped into a zeitgeist—an increasingly unmet need. Here was a chance at handwork for anyone who felt like they were losing touch with their surroundings—people who were using electronics they didn’t understand, and driving cars they could no longer fix.

Unfortunately, when these new converts set out to construct their own strawbale homes, they found that local building departments were so unfamiliar with the method that permits in regulated areas were difficult to obtain. “I felt we were seducing people into something they couldn’t do,” Eisenberg says.

Even when permits were issued, the straw was reduced to function solely as insulation—infill for a frame made of wood. On one level, this worked fine. Straw is a hollow tube, the fibrous stalk that remains after the grain head is harvested; when compressed into bales, which are typically 16-24 inches thick, straw insulates magnificently by trapping air, much like bird feathers or animal fur. Meanwhile, other benefits of baled straw have gone ignored.

During construction of a strawbale house, the bales are typically shorn and shaped with a chainsaw — one reason these buildings frequently have rounded corners. More hands are typically needed to build a strawbale house than one with wood and synthetic insulation. This fact, plus all the chain-sawing, tends to give the job site something of a barn-raising atmosphere. photo courtesy of John Swearingen/Skillful Means

ANSWERS HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

“From the beginning, it was not an easy sell,” Eisenberg recalls. “I began to question why it was so much harder to get building permits for sustainable buildings than for the most toxic, wasteful building systems.” After studying the problem, he says, “I realized that the codes are exclusively designed around industrialized building. And no one was responsible for the large and serious consequences.”

A 4×8 wall panel insulated with polystyrene foam produces 39 kilos of CO2. In contrast, an equivalent strawbale panel actually removes, or sequesters, 78 kilos of CO2—an improvement of roughly 300 percent.

Just for starters, consider the stunning difference, regarding climate impact, between standard insulation and straw bales. Chris Magwood, a sustainable builder who has written widely on the topic, calculates that a 4×8 wall panel insulated with polystyrene foam produces 39 kilos of CO2, factoring in both manufacture and installation. In contrast, an equivalent strawbale panel actually removes, or sequesters, 78 kilos of CO2 from the atmosphere. Why? Any plant-based material, such as straw or wood, absorbs CO2 through photosynthesis. If left untouched, that CO2 is normally released again later as the plant matter decomposes. However, when straw or wood is used in construction, the fibers don’t decompose. Based on Magwood’s figures, the difference between these two panels is roughly a 300% improvement in CO2 with the use of straw.

To John Swearingen, who built the Harrison House, it wouldn’t take much for building regulators to deal with those consequences. “It only takes a small expansion of their scope to consider materials, and then expand that a little bit to the environment. Go up the manufacturing chain or ask what happens to the waste products of the building in the long run, over decades, into the ground, into the groundwater.”

AN IDEAL INSULATOR

John Swearingen built the first permitted strawbale building
in California with architect Janet Johnston. Since then, he has built 60 strawbale
buildings in the state, including this home in Lake County. photo courtesy of John Swearingen/Skillful Means

The insulation value of straw would seem the least arguable attribute to measure, but it has been difficult put a definitive number to it. Starting in 1994, several tests, including those by Sandia Labs, the Oak Ridge National Labs, and The Canadian Society of Agricultural Engineers came up with different figures for a straw bale’s R-value, which has to do with resistance to thermal conductance.

As it turned out, R-values on straw vary depending on the type of straw being used, and how densely it was packed. A bale wall works by trapping air, the real insulator, in small enough chambers to prevent prevent convection loops. (These are circulation patterns of warm and cool air.) When measured by the inch versus other building materials, a bale is not ideal; its thickness is what makes the difference.

A typical conventional building can take 20 minutes to a couple of hours to adjust to outside temperatures (giving them an R-19 rating). Straw can do much better than that. When plastered over, strawbale walls adjust to temperatures extremely slowly, sometimes over a period of weeks. By the time the outside goes through its diurnal swing, the temperature flow in the bales reverses. So whatever the number—which has been estimated as anywhere between R-32 and R-64, according to the California Energy Commission—strawbale walls excel because of their thermal lag. “The temperature changes are so gradual that physiologically your body adjusts,” Swearingen says. “It can fall to 63 degrees before you feel uncomfortable.”

The U.S. Department of Energy came to a similar conclusion. In a 1995 report, the agency found that well-built strawbale construction “could provide up to a 60% reduction in building heating loads over current practice.” Finally, in 1996, Eisenberg and Myhrman won a significant victory. In Pima, Arizona, they established the first building code that would let contractors use straw bales in load-bearing walls, without the aid of any framing.

Although Eisenberg went on to fight for straw’s wider acceptance, the Pima code, copied in a few other places, was as far as it got for nearly 20 years. “We knew we needed to know a lot more than we did,” Eisenberg says. To get much further, it was clear straw’s advocates would need test data, but funding for testing was scarce. And since building methods in the bale community were open-sourced, the construction industry had no incentive to invest in materials and procedures that could not be patented.

The Simonton House in Purdham, Nebraska, shows that strawbale construction is nothing new. Built in 1908, the house remains standing to this day, having survived hurricanes, rainstorms, and all manner of weather. photo courtesy of Martin Hammer

TRIAL BY FIRE

In San Antonio, at 11:10 a.m. on July 19, 2006, the warehouse at Intertek Testing Services registered 90°F, humidity 74°F. Bruce King, an engineer who has written technical books on strawbale building, was there with Myhrman, Eisenberg, and Frank Meyer, a builder who wrote a country song called “Straw and Clay.”

“The most important, unusual, and seemingly counterintuitive feature” of a bale wall, says Bruce King, an engineer, is that it breathes.

To this point, only a couple of small-scale tests for fire had been done on strawbale walls—apart from Swearingen’s propensity to take a blowtorch to a bale to convince doubters of its resistance. So King had arranged for a definitive test. Conducted and certified by Intertek, a Quality Assurance contractor, the test was designed to meet the standards of The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

The team began by wheeling a 10 x10-foot cement-stucco plastered straw bale wall into place in front of the gaping opening of an enormous furnace, then stepped back as six propane burners ignited. A solid vertical sheet of fire soon licked at the wall’s face. It burned at over 1700 ̊F for two hours as they watched. The wall stood.

That was just stage one. For the second test, the team wanted to verify what remained of the wall’s structural stability, so they sprayed the burned surface with a firehose “with enough force to knock a man off his feet,” King said. The wall held up just fine. When they removed the plaster from the unexposed side, the bales weren’t even charred. King’s plastered strawbale wall subsequently got an ASTM two-hour fire rating—twice what comparable wall of wood and synthetic insulation would get.

One of the pleasures of building a strawbale home is that it can make old-school tools relevant again. At a workshop in Stanislaus County, California, Cindy Lam of Skillful Means, uses a rare, cast-iron bale saw, made with traditional tyne teeth, to hand trim the bales. photo courtesy of John Swearingen/Skillful Means

This strawbale retreat cabin in Trinity County, California, effectively withstands snow
and ice, as some original American strawbale houses have for more than a century. photo courtesy of John Swearingen/Skillful Means

No one is saying that straw bales alone can save a house. “They’re fire resistive,” says David Arkin of Arkin/Tilt, who designed the house. (In fairness, the Doody house had more than bale walls going for it; it also had a galvanized metal roof, concrete window sills, and a carefully kept firebreak surrounding the house.)

“It takes a system,” said Steve Quarles, a fire expert who did an early strawbale fire test at UC Berkeley and is now at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety Research Center in South Carolina. “Strawbale is a good performer. But vegetation, roof, windows, decks—a weak link is all it takes.”

Indeed, although three bale houses built by Arkin and his partner Anni Tilt survived last year’s Northern California fires, one did burn—a studio with bale walls on only three sides. (And yes, after the fire those walls stood amidst the wreckage.) A similar sight was the charred strawbale walls that were all that remained of a house in Wales that burned last winter. The Telegraph erroneously reported: “[The house] was constructed using straw, meaning the fire on January 1 ended up destroying the entire house.”

MYTHS, BIASES, AND DENIAL

This cross-section of a piece of straw, magnified by an electron microscope, illustrates straw’s multiple air-trapping pockets. That’s why walls filled with packed straw provide such excellent insulation. photo courtesy of Delilah Wood, USDA

Throughout the decades that advocates have been fighting for a bale’s myriad strengths, misinformation has been pervasive. At one point, at a meeting of science writers in Berkeley, California, an architect stressed his environmental sophistication by noting that he had designed a LEED building and drives an electric car. “Straw bale?” he said, “It rots.”

Yes, straw does rot, but only if it gets wet for a long period of time. “But so does wood,” Tilt points out. Actually, straw consists of the same components as wood—cellulose, hemicellulose and lignins—just in less dense form. (Straw will absorb and hold water more than wood does. For that reason, water pipes are typically not routed through bale walls.) Nonetheless, a long-term study conducted in 2000 by the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation concluded that “Straw bale walls do not exhibit any unique propensity for moisture retention.”

While the study’s conclusion seems odd, it has a basis: Strawbale builders have long known that any house they construct needs “a good hat and good boots”— in other words, a roof with a wide protective overhang and a foundation that keeps the bales well above grade. This insight came from observing the continuously occupied straw bale structures in Nebraska that have been whipped with snow for over a century.

“The most important, unusual, and seemingly counterintuitive feature” of a bale wall, King says, is that it breathes.

Unfortunately, this unique attribute created yet another code problem. Builders are typically required to place moisture barriers across a wall. This effectively suffocates whatever the wall is made of, restricting its ability to release water vapor.

When the earthquake test began, the model of the strawbale house started to sway like rubber. As acceleration increased, the sound of cracking plaster became a reminder of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed 100,000 people—in the place where they proposed building. When the movement stopped, the building stood. “No one would have been killed.”

Sonoma County, California, houses a particularly impressive illustration of why these moisture barriers are unnecessary. In 2003, Ridge Vineyards—the winery that helped elevate California wines in the famous 1976 Paris tasting—constructed the largest strawbale building in the U.S. at its Lytton Springs Winery. The walls here, built with earthen and lime plasters, rise up to 23 feet high. They shoulder a range of loading conditions, in varying degrees of humidity—from rain on the exterior walls to the constant humidity inside the winery’s barrel room. None of these walls were built with moisture barriers; for over a year, the respiration of the bale walls was closely monitored and tested regularly by two scientists who had been commissioned by the California state government. When the tests were concluded, the researchers found that the relative humidity within the walls was “maintained within safety levels.”

FROM QUAKES TO HURRICANES

David Mar’s seismic work for the Harrison House received the engineering equivalent of an Oscar, and in 2005, its adaptation in China received a World Habitat Award from The United Nations. Yet no strawbale building had been through any earthquakes significant enough to prove a straw bale’s resilience. Then, in 2009, Darcey Donovan, a civil engineer who builds strawbale houses in a quake-prone area of Pakistan, gathered supporters of her non-profit, Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building. They constructed a full-scale, load-bearing strawbale house on the “shake table” at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Straw used to be burned in California, as it still is in some states and in Mexico. Since the burning causes pollution, California funded tests to see whether straw could instead be used as a building material. This test shows that walls filled with straw bales can withstand very strong winds. photo courtesy of Martin Hammer

When the test began, the house started to sway like rubber. As the acceleration increased, the sound of cracking plaster became a reminder of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed 100,000 people—in the place where they proposed building. The walls shuddered and a long fissure opened along the foundation. As the shaking was heightened to simulate forces of the Kashmir quake, the breach widened, and the intensity was revved up to nearly half as much more. When the movement stopped, the building stood. “No one would have been killed,” said Donovan.

The resilience of these walls to the force of an earthquake begs another question: How would a strawbale home have fared against the recent furies of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina?

Hurricanes, of course, deliver a double punch—both wind and rain. Let’s take the wind first, because gales and earthquakes share some destructive habits. “The codes for earthquakes and hurricanes are actually quite similar,” says Michael Wich, Director of Building Code Administration and Chief Building Official for the South Central Planning and Development Commission in Houma, Louisiana. Obviously, nothing would have withstood Florence’s angriest winds, but this means that homes on the hurricane’s edges might have done pretty well.

Rains that turn into floods are a different matter. Given straw’s absorbency, a strawbale home will suffer horribly if storm-waters permeate it. But strawbale architects and builders have found ways to protect their walls. As David Eisenberg says, “You should only build with straw bales in a dry place and you can make a dry place anywhere.” Some houses can be put on stilts; others, Eisenberg says, can be built with water-resistant walls down low and strawbale walls above.

This ti kay pay (small straw house) was the first strawbale building in Haiti, where straw is routinely burned after harvest. The project, in Port-au-Prince, was led by Builders without Borders, an international network of ecological builders who advocate the use of straw, earth, and other local, affordable materials. The organization also trains people to build their own homes. photo courtesy of Martin Hammer

THE NEXT CHAPTER

To get strawbale construction officially codified, in 2009 Eisenberg decided to work through international construction codes, which are the basis for local building regulations across the U.S. He recruited Martin Hammer, who, backed by input from 25 architects, engineers, and builders, spent a year writing a proposal for the International Code Council (ICC). At a dramatic hearing in Dallas, strawbale building finally made it into the Appendix of the 2015 International Residential Code; several years later, an update of the code was voted into the Appendix for the 2018 code unanimously. Unfortunately, appendix items in the ICC code are optional. Nonetheless, strawbale building is slowly being adapted state by state. And judging from all reports, it’s facing less and less resistance with each application.

Since labor is one of the biggest costs with strawbale construction, straw specialists have been developing techniques to build pre-fabricated wall modules. photo courtesy of ModCell

Some obstacles to the widespread adoption of bale building are perfectly legitimate. For one thing, it’s not particularly practical in urban communities. As King points out, it “is never going to be efficient enough to scale up” because the walls are too thick for cramped cities; even where space exists, stacking bales without a gang of friends requires too much labor. That’s one reason that, per square foot, building a strawbale house costs about the same as a similar house made of more common materials. But King isn’t giving up. “Strawbale construction is the tip of emerging innovation,” he says. “We’re learning to insulate and build with the by-products of food production rather than highly problematic petroleum products.”

Meanwhile, a few green builders are developing strawbale wall systems that are pre-fabricated, to cut down on costs and labor. Some already are being made in the UK, Australia, by a facility in Lithuania for the European market, and in Chile; these buildings can be multiple stories high. But no such production has started in North America.

Whatever solutions people pursue, King offers a guiding maxim for tomorrow’s builders: “Don’t move things very far, don’t rearrange molecules very much, and use what you already have.”

Hayesfield Girls’ School, a Technology College in Bath, England, used straw bales to build pre-fab walls for this facility. The school considers itself a leader in sustainability, with an emphasis on innovation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). photo courtesy of ModCell

HARRISON GETS THE LAST WORD

In addition to being a composer, Lou Harrison was an ethnomusicologist, conductor, teacher, instrument-maker, poet, calligrapher, critic, polemicist, social activist, environmentalist, dancer, playwright, and creator of a puppet opera. He loved the aesthetics of his strawbale home—thick, rounded walls, deep set windows, and the earthen look of the place, like the vernacular inspirations of his music. He described the building’s acoustics as “heaven.”

Harrison liked the community of strawbale, the custom of gathering for a day of construction, like the Amish barn-raising tradition. There was an idealistic stripe to it that appealed to Harrison, who was a devotee of universal communication through Esperanto. The material made ecological and social sense to him, too: “You have something that can feed you and house you. We could grow all the houses needed in the nation!” he said.

After the 2017 Sonoma fires left entire neighborhoods in ashes, the walls of this straw bale house, on Norrbom Road, were still intact. photo courtesy of David Arkin

Harrison sketched his house ideas for Swearingen and architect Janet Johnston, starting with a long main room to musical ratios, 3:1. But the professionals paused when Harrison added his vaulted ceiling. After all, they were building in the Eastern Mojave shear zone, a network of faults that move up, down, sideways, and at an angle.

In 2001, three years after breaking ground, the house was finally completed. In the end, Harrison’s bale raising was a celebratory affair, with all manner of artists, dancers and musicians stacking the straw and plastering the mud.

Harrison wrote his final piece there, and the building has been described as his last and finest instrument. The rust-colored arched house, rising up out of the desert, is now an arts and ecology residency center called Harrison House. In 2017, The New York Times reviewed a performance of Harrison’s 1949 Suite for Cello and Harp when it was performed there. “Emil Miland’s cello sounded ten times its size,” the Times said, “and caused the walls to feel elastic.”

Harrison House is now owned by film-maker Eva Soltes, who in 2008 showed her documentary on Harrison, “A World of Music,” for the local and county officials in Joshua Tree. “They were all there, the mayor, the building people,” she said. “In the film Lou speaks about the years it took the bureaucrats to issue a permit for his house. And he looks right out at them and says,” she paused for a gleeful laugh, “‘The bastards!’”

M.E.A. (“Mea”) McNeil is a writer, organic farmer, and Master Beekeeper, whose work often focuses on sustainability. Mea recently completed an MFA in narrative nonfiction writing at Mills College, where she won the Teppola Nonfiction Writing Prize. She lives in Marin with her husband and youngest son in a strawbale house.

© 2018 M.E.A. (“Mea”) McNeil, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: September 25, 2018

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