The oldest straw bale houses are around 130 years old, the oldest European house in France dates back to 1921. When a brick dated to 3000 years old was broken apart the straw inside was as bright and golden as the day it went in. But is this a form of construction we can still use today – and in Orkney?
In this series of columns I will touch on the history of straw construction, Tools and Skills, Planning, Building Warrant, Site, costs, Environment, and at least obliquely other green building systems.This is my own personal experience of straw construction.
Structures means just that — anything above ground not actually in contact with the sea or a burn. So houses, garages, barns, studios, medical centres, commercial and light Industrial premises anything up to 2 1/2 storeys high. I will settle a couple of frequently asked questions first to put at least a few minds at rest.
A straw bale structure is more resistant to fire than a lot of other conventional structures. The parable I like to use is ” its like trying to burn a Telephone book” if you tear out the pages one by one then it will burn but as a book?? You would use up a whole box of matches and all you will have done is to char the edges. One professional test gave a straw bale wall a fire resistance of over 2 hours.
Rodents love voids. In a properly built Straw bale structure there are none. There is an apocryphal story of a straw bale house holder taking off the cover of an electrical fitting and finding a family of desiccated mice behind it.
Straw and clay mixtures
Typically sun dried bricks have been used for thousands of years. When a brick dated to 3000 years old was broken apart the straw inside was as bright and golden as the day it went in. The oldest straw bale houses are around 130 years old, the oldest European house in France dates back to 1921. And here in the UK around 10 years. The oldest houses are in the US State of Nebraska. The method of construction where the straw bale is the structure is sometimes called the Nebraska method.
Orkney produces good quality straw bales when the summer weather permits. Barley, oats, and wheat are all suitable with a slight preference for barley as the straw is kinder to the hands.
A straw bale is around 16 kg. This is the HSE guideline figure in their Manual Handling guide for a woman to pick up and move every 2 minutes. The UK’s finest straw bale builder is a woman, Barbara Jones, who is not just no Amazon but is of average height and slightly wiry.
Theoretically you could buy books on Straw baling and go from there. I would not recommend it there are a fair number of little wrinkles that the books don’t cover. It helps to go on a short course where you will be actually doing it; a week is all it normally takes. They are not expensive and are also a lot of fun and you get to meet a lot of folk from different walks of life. It’s how I started and was infected with the Straw bale bug. There are 2 or 3 outfits doing this, but the one I can recommend is Straworks as the main teacher(Barbara Jones) has the patience of Job and is a superb teacher.
More in the next edition of The Orkney News: Nick Morrison
For more information click Straworks