Straw bales provide foundation for sustainable building

It was late afternoon on the hottest day the year. And yet, a group of about a half-dozen students and instructors were chatting and laughing as they packed clumps of mud-covered straw between neatly stacked straw bales.

The students were participating in a straw bale building workshop. The half-built shed was on instructor’s Phil Holman-Hebert’s Sweetlove Farm in Jefferson County.

At that moment, four 18-inch thick walls of straw bales were up and framed at the corners with lumber. In between, bamboo rods provided extra support.

Halfway through the six-day workshop, the crews were preparing to plaster the entire building with two inches of a chocolatey and peanut butter brown clay mixture.

The wind and lack of humidity made that day’s temperature bearable compared to the ones before, Holman-Hebert offered as an explanation for why the crew had so much gusto.

And, he added, building with straw bales is just a lot fun, even in triple-digit temperatures.

“It’s the adult version of putting up a shelter with LEGO blocks,” he said.

A renewable material

Of course there’s other reasons why Holman-Hebert is an advocate for straw bale homes. Among them is because it is a sustainable building practice.

The tightly compacted straw bales insulating the house came from this year’s wheat harvest in Effingham.

Along with being an agricultural byproduct, straw bales, if used correctly, provide a level of insulation as high as almost any commercial product on the market, Holman-Hebert said.

The idea of the workshop came from the need to get the garage out of the second story of Holman-Hebert’s straw bale house, which was built nine years ago.

When completed, the shed being built this week will be used to wash and pack eggs and store meat and power tools.

At the same time Holman-Hebert was looking to expand his farm, he kept fielding inquires on how to build with straw bales.

“There seemed to be a growing interest in learning how to do this. So we put the two together to see if we could get this workshop going,” he said.

Straw bale codes

According to the International Straw Bale Building Registry, there are hundreds of straw bale structures across the country. In Kansas, 12 structures have been registered with a good chunk of those homes being in Leavenworth and Jefferson counties. Two of the structures are registered in Lawrence, one an art studio and the other a shed.

While straw bale buildings can be attractive as a sustainable building technique, it also can be a challenging one to get approved in some counties and cities.

The city of Lawrence and Douglas County won’t approve plans for a straw bale home unless it comes with a detailed engineering report or tests to prove the integrity of the structure.

Neither Jefferson nor Leavenworth counties require building inspections, so they don’t have to meet these standards.

Traditional wood-frame houses and even metal frame ones have a specific set of codes that builders in Lawrence and Douglas County must follow. A similar set of building specifications have never been adopted for straw bale buildings.

“Basically there are no standards as far as structural integrity and how they are to be constructed, which means they need to be designed by an engineer. And that makes it more difficult to get a project going,” said Barry Walthall, the city’s building code manager.

Douglas County building inspector Pat Wempe stressed that the building codes allow for alliterative forms of construction, the builders just have to prove they are safe.

Along with making sure a straw bale building is structurally sound, the building departments have to make sure it meets fire codes, plumbing, electrical and mechanical standards.

“It’s just not stacking hay bales,” Wempe said. “You have to be able to prove that it is just as good as a standard built house.”

Turning straw into homes

Many of those who came to Holman-Hebert’s workshop had plans of building straw bale structures on their property.

Jim Brabec, a middle school science teacher from Olathe, came to the workshop because he was interested in alternative building methods.

“The next generation is going to have to be able to use more (diverse) resources because we are running out,” Brabec said. “I’m just teaching children, students and my own kids, different ways of making things.”

Bruce Weber, who has been a carpenter for 35 years, liked the renewable qualities of straw bales.

“I’m learning better methods and more responsible building (practices),” he said.

Among the instructors at the workshop was Susan Jones, who three years ago hired Holman-Hebert to build a straw bale home in Grantville. She was attracted to the use of natural and renewable materials.

During the process, she uncovered an unexpected element to straw bale building.

“There’s just something about working together. Straw bale building is about community and that is probably my favorite part,” Jones said.

Holman-Hebert compares the process to an Amish barn rising.

“The materials and system is very conducive to a big group of unskilled workers getting together to do something that is wholly primeval,” Holman-Hebert said. “Most of our modern construction techniques won’t offer that kind of opportunity.”

By Christine Metz

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