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Straw Bale Homes are not Just For Fairy Tales

In the fairy tale, the Three Little Pigs, the porcine protagonists flee the house of straw, fearing it was no match for the Big Bad Wolf. In fact, modern straw-bale construction is strong, attractive and affordable—and it’s catching on as a technique of choice for eco-conscious homebuilders

The idea is simple: a straw-bale home is essentially a reinforced straw-bale structure, coated with a plaster-like finish. Doors and windows are framed in with wood, as are some load-bearing elements to support upper floors. Straw-bale construction is easy on the environment because the main building material is an agricultural waste product that requires very little energy to produce. With proper maintenance, a straw-bale house will last 100 years.

Scott Young and Martha Armstrong built their straw-bale home in Bracebridge, Ont. in 2006. They chose straw after researching various possibilities. Young, who works for the Muskoka Conservancy, wanted a home that would reflect the family’s commitment to environmental responsibility. A price quote on the straw-bale home fell in between two other quotes for the same design with traditional wood-frame construction.

Harvest Homes built the home to Young’s own design.

“We showed that buildinga straw-bale house is as cost-effective as building a stick house,” says Young.

The savings continue. One of the biggest advantages of the straw-bale house is its ability to maintain a consistent internal temperature all year long because of its thick walls. In the winter, Young says his family typically uses a wood stove for a few hours a day, “and that’s about it,” he says. “Without any air conditioning, it’s very comfortable in the summer.”

There are a few drawbacks, though. These homes are vulnerable to extreme moisture, so they’re not well suited to very wet climates (or to locations where straw is in short supply). Building requires some expertise, so make sure you’ve got experienced help before you dive in. And check your local building codes—not all municipalities allow straw-bale homes.

The homes are uniquely beautiful, with thick walls that lend themselves to window seats and naturally attractive facades.

“The exterior is parged with a mixture of concrete and shredded hemp, so the edges are rounded and the walls have a bit of a wave to them,” Young says. “So it’s not a perfectly smooth, dead flat appearance. It has more of an organic feel to it.”

Takeaway: Don’t get stuck on sticks and bricks. Unconventional building materials have unique advantages.