This article first appeared in the October edition of iScot Magazine.
Topped with a turf roof adorned with wild flowers and an ever watchful cat Nick Morrison’s Orkney Straw House in Orphir overlooks Scapa Flow.
Nick wanted to construct a greener alternative to traditional house building methods and built his home out of straw bales. Sun dried straw 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 at around 130 years old are in the US State of Nebraska with the oldest European house in France dating back to 1921.
Orkney produces good quality straw bales when the summer weather permits. Barley, oats, and wheat are all suitable with barley being slightly kinder to the hands. A straw bale weighs in at around 16 kg allowing Nick and his wife to work together on construction. Indeed the UK’s finest straw bale builder is a woman, Barbara Jones of Straworks.
The foundations are not as deep as a conventionally built house and Nick used locally sourced crushed Orkney stone for his. No cement was used and lime was the choice material to render the outside of the house due to the islands’ weather conditions. Clay is recommended for more sheltered areas.
Building with straw bales is a relatively quick method of construction. The walls of Nick’s Orphir house went to the first floor stage in a week and that was while they were still being trained in the construction techniques. The biggest problem was of the watery kind.
“Very shortly after breaking ground we became aware that the whole area was very wet and totally unsuitable for building anything. After some investigation we discovered that there were three land drains emptying into the area we were trying to build foundations on.
“We had to stop digging and build a new land drain up slope of the site to intercept these 3 drains. This new drain is some 110m in length and up to 3m in depth. That done we now had to wait until the land settled down and dried out a bit.
“Building this drain took up most of the time we were going to use to build the foundations. It was now mid autumn and so we were stopped till spring. It was the first of several delays.”
Once that was sorted out there was the Orkney weather to contend with.
“Trying to keep our local horizontal rain off the straw walls was a big problem. A new tarp would blow out in about 20 mins. We eventually used a mixture of old fish farm bird netting, and ropes stretched diagonally across the tarp. That sort of worked but required constant vigilance. “
One way of getting round this is by building the roof first then jacking it up as the walls are constructed. The roof forms an ‘umbrella’ over the walls protecting them from the elements.
Planning permission for Nick’s house required a Structural Engineers report but incurred no additional problems.
The house is served with a ground source heat pump which also heats the water. There is a small peat fired stove in the main living quarters and Nick even cuts his own peats. The electricity source is on economy 10 and is pulsed to time with the cheaper rate. The electricity cables run through conduits.
At the corners of this warm and comfortable house there are wind frames of reinforced steel joints. This means the walls do not warp or strain with the force of Orkney’s strong winds and the weight of the turf roof.
There are no concerns about vermin infesting a straw construction as rodents need voids, water and a food source and none of those are available with this type of construction. The bales are pressed down to such an extent that they are compacted with no spaces and they are dry.
And why did Nick decide to build his house of straw? As a concerned grandfather he said:
“It is morally incumbent on us as residents of one of the areas in Europe potentially most affected by rising sea levels caused mainly by man-made CO2 to adopt those systems of construction which put the least CO2 into the atmosphere. “
Text: Fiona Grahame. Images: Martin Laird