Straw bale construction: There is no away


So, the name of the blog. Straw bale construction is nothing new and, no, they are not to be confused with hay. Straw is the dried stalk of a cereal plant after the grain has been removed, an agricultural by-product. They typically clutter the ubiquitous landscape of the rural world and are usually burned by the farmer as a way to rid themselves of the nuisance.

Straw bale construction is an opportunity to make use of a waste product. An ethic we must subscribe to more frequently as we are fast depleting places to dispose of waste.

A common phrase is to “throw away” something that is past its useful life.  The painful truth is that there is no such place as “away” and as we fill up places with our waste that place we refer to as “away” will transform to “here”.

In this case we intend to use straw in their baled form to construct things.  Everything from a raised urban farm bed, to buildings.

straw in the urban farm contextstraw in the building context

Best of all, this isn’t just an act of removing something from the waste stream, we are also using the very high insulation value (called an R-value) to our advantage.  Straw can achieve an R-value of about 2 per inch, meaning that a typical 24 inch bale will catch an R-value of around 48 (the typical wood framed house checks in at about R-13).  The energy savings are astronomical, especially in extreme climates like the desert or right here in Chicago.

This is not a nascent construction method.  The oldest known strawbale building currently stands upright in Alliance, Nebraska and was constructed circa 1898.  Not only that, but it is a load-bearing straw structure, meaning the weight of the roof bears directly on to the bales where it is then transferred to the foundation.  Our modern building codes have all but outlawed any load bearing material other than wood, concrete, steel, or masonry but outside of the seismic zones I foresee a push towards the addition of straw.  Look for case studies in upcoming posts.