WASHINGTON – When the three little pigs built a house out of straw,the big bad wolf was able to blow it down. But today,houses built out of straw bales are sturdy and more energy efficient than traditionally constructed buildings,experts say.
Straw bales have been used for buildings in at least 49 states and in more than 40 countries,including Australia,Switzerland and India.
The straw bales are stacked on top of each other and covered in plaster on both sides,which keeps out moisture.
Using straw bales is beneficial because it is a renewable resource,but also because it is a very effective insulator,advocates said at a briefing Friday sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
In Switzerland,some houses built out of straw bales need no additional heating besides sunlight through the windows,said Laura Bartels,president of GreenWeaver Inc.,a group that educates people about and supports green buildings.
In Tucson, Ariz.,houses built with straw bales use only a minimal amount of air conditioning,Bartels said.
“Investing in energy efficiency is the cheapest,easiest way to get off foreign oil,” said Sandy Wiggins,principal at Consilience LLC,a national company focused on green buildings.
Straw bales are a byproduct of food production that is often burned but could instead be used in buildings.
Annually,125 million to 177 million tons of straw bales are produced. If half were used in buildings,they could create more than 10 million 2,000 square foot houses,Bartels said.
Straw bales are similar to wood in composition but much less expensive and more widely available,Bartels said.
Building homes out of straw bales also creates the opportunity for more jobs because building with straw is labor-intensive,said Bob Gough,secretary for the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy,.
Because American Indians have a growing population,they are looking for new jobs as well as cost- and energy-efficient buildings,Gough said.
He said conventional housing is on “life support” because it is so dependent on non-renewable,expensive energy sources and has a high amount of carbon emissions.
“Tribes are beginning to take a leading role in energy development,” he said.
But people looking to use straw-bale construction face some obstacles,such as resistance from building code officials,a lack of knowledge in the design community and a lack of technical skills in the labor force,Wiggins said.
Although some testing on straw-bale buildings has proven them to be safe,more research is necessary,and there is not a lot of funding available for it,said David Eisenberg,director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology,a non-profit organization involved in straw-bale construction since 1991. Since 1992,approximately $400,000 of research and testing has been done in the U.S.,he said.
Research so far has found straw-bale buildings are safer in earthquakes and tornadoes than traditional buildings because they are strong,yet have some movement that would give people more time to escape than a brick building would,Bartels said.
“Hurricane Katrina really brought home the vulnerability of our buildings,” Eisenberg said. “We need to build more buildings that are self supporting.”
The buildings have also passed one and two hour fire tests by the American Society for Testing and Materials and are pest resistant.
Esther Siegel,59,owns a house that contains some straw-bale rooms in Takoma Park,Md.,and said she liked the environmental values of the house and the community aspect of having neighbors and others help her build it.
“I feel proud that we made a tiny contribution to energy efficiency,” she said.
Her house was completed in 2000 and uses very little air conditioning and no heating in the area built with straw bales other than a small space heater occasionally.
“I hate leaving my house,” Siegel said. “I love my home. It's absolutely beautiful.”
To see pictures of Siegel's home and other straw bale-homes,visit the Helicon Works Web site.