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Straw Bale Homes: Their Amazing Off-Grid Appeal

straw bale house

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Off-the-grid homes and retreats can be constructed from conventional materials, but are often tight-budget builds designed to harness their power from the earth (geo-thermal) and the sun in the most feasible way possible.

In our off-the-grid home options series, we have already taken a glimpse at container homes and earth berms. Next on the list of alternative sustainable dwelling options are straw bale homes.

Planning ahead – perhaps two years ahead — is often required when embarking on a straw home build. Depending upon the size of the home, and yes two-story straw houses do exist, it could be difficult to garner all the bales needed to complete the dwelling. It is recommended to contract with at least one farmer a season in advance to negotiate a deal to purchase all the straw harvested the following year.

Straw bales homes are sturdy, warm and attractive, but some say may pose a more significant fire hazard than an earth berm or metal shipping container home. The flammability of straw bale homes is a hotly debated topic among fans and foes of the growing building trend. Proper stacking and building techniques appear to have quite an impact on fire hazard potential of this type of alternative home. Off-the-grid fire preparedness should be taken into consideration before investing a single dime in building materials. If you cannot call the fire department, all the hard work which goes into crafting the perfect homestead can disappear in minutes. A solid foundation, commonly made of stone, is needed to base the straw bale home and to provide a moisture break as well.

Straw bale homes have many pros and cons. Here are 11 points to consider:

1. Straw bale homes are no more expensive to construct than traditional stick-built homes. Strong timbers are used to frame the home, much like is done with log cabins – but without all the expense associated with building solely with logs.

2. Homes built out of straw bales have an R-value between 40 and 60 when built correctly, according to the PAJA Construction company that builds such homes. (R-values measures a home’s insulation value.) The manner in which the straw bales are stacked and meshed with the roof insulation, the post and beam structure, loadbearing top plate, and plaster work all play a role in determining insulation value, according the straw bale construction experts.

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3. The flammability of straw bale homes has been the topic of a multitude of studies and tests. There are those who feel that such homes are no more flammable than traditional homes and those who even believe that straw bale homes are more fire retardant that stick built homes. The theory behind the fire resistant nature of the homes revolves around the idea that when the bales are stacked tightly, oxygen cannot permeate and fuel a blaze.

4. Folks concerned with decreasing their carbon footprint and building an earth-friendly home should put straw bale homes on the top of their possibilities list. Straw bales are primarily comprised of oats, wheat, rye, rice and barley. Unlike log homes which involve clear cutting and years for new growth to become mature, straw replenishes itself year after year. Purchasing locally grown straw and supporting area family farmers is a task easily accomplished in all of the lower 48 states.

5. Stacking straw bales is labor to be sure, but is not nearly as physically demanding as many other chores associated with more conventional building materials. Heavy equipment is not needed to lift your material into place — just a ladder. You can even use a horse or mule hitched to a wagon to haul your home construction material from where it is grown to the building site. Being integrally involved with development of your new home not only will become a source a great pride, but save you money as well.

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6. Owners of straw homes often remark at the coziness felt inside the home thanks to the natural insulation the bales provide. The natural building material is known to help keep the dwelling cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

7. Attractiveness is not sacrificed when opting for a straw bale off-the-grid living existence. The bales are not left exposed either inside or out. Typically, the walls are stuccoed to provide both beauty and added sturdiness to the home.

8. Permit inspectors may not approve of your unconventional building material. Make sure each and every step of your dream straw bale home is approved before signing any supply contracts.

9. High humidity areas are known to be at least somewhat of a problem in straw bale homes. Both insects and mold are attracted to straw if it consistently becomes wet or even damp. Bathroom areas and the kitchen are the two prime areas where extra care must be taken to make sure that the bales are adequately positioned and protected from water sources. A water leak in a traditional home is a big headache and can prompt mold, but in a straw bale home, such an incident can cause a huge problem rather quickly.

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10. Do you math and check it twice when designing a straw bale home. Due to the natural size and girth of the bales, they will impact interior square footage. According to the experts at PAJA Construction, a typical stick frame home wall is about 6 inches thick – a straw bale wall is around 18 inches thick.

11. Without a strong foundation, anything will crumble, be it a home, relationship or escape plan. Straw bale homes not only need to have a properly laid foundation but a carefully stacked wall. The insulation properties and strength of the wall can be easily compromised by even small gaps. Not only do the easily visible edges of the bales need to meet securely against one another, but so does the belly of the bale. Thermal leakage between the bales inside the wall once it has been stuccoed will leave you shivering in the winter and possibly expose your family to mold that you cannot see or smell – until it is too late. Unless you have a lot of experience working with straw, insulation and construction, professional assistance is strongly recommended.

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