Build a House of Straw? Seriously?

Straw Bale Construction Deconstructed

Frameless Straw Bale House (straw bale walls carry the roof load)
Frameless Straw Bale House (straw bale walls carry the roof load). Photo ┬ęphilipp, iphilipp on flickr.com, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Straw is one of the world's oldest building materials, and it's much stronger than you'd think. Harvested from fields of wheat, rice, rye, oats, and similar crops, straw is also earth-friendly and wallet-friendly. Compressed bales can be stacked, reinforced with steel rods, and inserted into a house frame. Straw bale walls are sturdy enough to bear heavy loads. The bales burn more slowly than wood and provide excellent insulation.

In the African prairies, houses have been made of straw since the Paleolithic times. Straw construction became popular in the American Midwest when pioneers discovered that no amount of huffing and puffing would blow down hefty bales of straw and grass. Farmers soon learned to coat the walls, especially the exterior surfaces, with lime-based earthen plasters. When baled hay was used, animals would eat through the structure. Straw is a more woody waste-product of grain farming.

Architects and engineers are now exploring new possibilities for straw bale construction. Modern day "pioneers" who are building and living in these homes say that building with straw instead of conventional materials cuts the construction costs by as much as half.

Two Kinds of Straw Bale Construction

  1. Bales are used to support the weight of the roof. This technique often uses steel rods through the bales for reinforcement and stability from movement. Structures are generally one-story, simple designs.
  1. Bales are used as "infill," like insulated wall material, between the studs of a wood framed structure. The roof is supported by the frame and not the straw bales. Structures can be architecturally more complex and larger.

Exterior Siding

After the straw bales are in place, they are protected with several coatings of stucco.

A straw bale house or cottage looks like any other stucco-sided house. Beware, however, that many different recipes exist for stucco. Straw bales need a lime-based earthen mixture, and a straw bale expert (not necessarily a stucco expert) should be consulted.

About Straw Bale Construction

Learn More From These Books

  • Strawbale Home Plans by Wayne J. Bingham and Colleen Smith, 2007
  • More Straw Bale Building: A Complete Guide to Designing and Building with Straw by Chris Magwood, 2005
  • Straw Bale Building: How to plan, design and build with straw by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack, 2000
  • Building a Straw Bale House: The Red Feather Construction Handbook by Nathaniel Corum, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005
  • Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000
  • The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes by Athena and Bill Steen, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2001
  • Small Strawbale by Bill Steen, Athena Swentzell Steen, and Wayne Bingham, 2005
  • Sustainable Compromises by Alan Boye, University of Nebraska Press, 2014
  • Build It with Bales by Matts Myhrman and S. O. MacDonald, 1998