Building houses with straw bales

A Steiner school in Holywood, Belfast. Built by volunteers, it cost just £7,000
A house built with straw could cost as little as £70,000 to build - and some are still standing after 140 years. Barbara Jones' fantastic book Building with Straw Bales reveals all you need to know

I have a friend who is not remotely interested in things environmental, but who is fascinated by strawbale building.

The concept captivates him: that you could take a ubiquitous, rural waste product and use it to build a home that is not only highly insulated and with a negative carbon footprint, but which looks beautiful as well.

When I first mentioned strawbale building to him, I was greeted with a barrage of sensible questions: how much do the houses cost? How much straw is there available in the UK? What's the lifetime of a strawbale house? How do they stand up to the British climate? Do the bales alone support the weight of the roof?

If only I'd read the second edition of Barbara Jones' fantastic book, Building with Straw Bales, back then, I might have been able to give my friend some more intelligent answers.

Future homes

The book (images from which are displayed above) is a perfect balance between hard facts, sociological context, and beautiful images. There's no lengthy preamble; within the first two chapters you will have answers to all your most burning questions:

- straw provides more than twice the insulation required by current building regulations, and leaks less than 25 per cent the heat of a filled cavity wall;
- there are examples of strawbale buildings still standing after 140 years;
- a strawbale wall is more fire resistant than a traditional stud wall;
- the walls can support at least two storeys;
- there is enough straw in the UK to build 423,000 houses every year;
- it could cost as little as £70,000 to build.

Once you've satisfied your immediate curiosity (and Jones backs up her figures with good research), you're free to enjoy the unfolding world of strawbale construction as you turn the pages.

Jones is at pains to point out that, whilst a strawbale house will satisfy even the most sceptical building inspector, constructing one is not something that needs to bear any resemblance to conventional building: no pencils behind ears, wolf-whistling from scaffolding or knocking on walls and muttering, ‘that'll cost a bit, love'.

Instead, she paints a picture of a strawbale-build as ‘fast, effective and fun':
‘There are very few people who are not able to build using straw,' Jones writes, ‘and strawbale building sites commonly include younger and older people, and people with a diversity of talent and experience.

‘This alternative approach to building has the long-term benefit that people feel happier if they are involved in their own building; they feel a sense of ownership and identify with it.'

The self-build revolution

But despite her sensitivity to the aesthetic, philosophical and cultural implications of housebuilding, Jones is no pie-in-the-sky idealist. She has a keen grasp of what owning a home in the UK means - a working-life saddled with a debt so gigantic most of us prefer not even to think about it.

She argues that these dismal economics can be countered by strawbale building, not just because material and labour costs are reduced, but because the buildings can very simply be made into beautiful, highly unique and personal structures without necessitating a Porsche in the drive and a banker's bonus.

‘It's true that the standardisation of materials has come about as a result of trying to make the construction process cheaper, but with that impetus we've also lost the ability to make our homes individual and beautiful and truly ours,' she notes.

Judging by the glut of property programmes that jostle for prime-time TV slots, our obsession with building our own homes must be second only to our ambition to cook like Jamie Oliver. But the former doesn't have to go unrealised, or enjoyed vicariously through the back catalogue of ‘Property Ladder'. Instead, get yourself a copy of Jones' book, and buy one for a friend.

With any luck, we may see the spark of a sustainable, straw-powered, self-build revolution.

Mark Anslow is editor of the Ecologist

To order your copy of 'Building With Straw Bales' (2nd ed.) at the special offer of £12.95 with free p&p (UK only), phone 0845 4589910 quoting the Ecologist reader offer. All major credit cards accepted.


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