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Back In Time: Straw Re-emerges as House Building Material After Milleniums

Italian designer sets trend in motion as he constructs a two-storey building with straw Straw-bale houses were much sturdier than the story of The Three Little Pigs would have one believe. In reality, constructions with these materials would withstand both the huffing and puffing of any wolf. Italian designer, Michael Reichegger kickstarted off this trend, the spotlight has once again fallen on the hitherto abandoned homebuilding material. Reichegger and an architectural community known as A15 used straw as the main building material for a two-story house in South Tyrol, Italy, supporting the goal of an “ecological, resource-conserving design.” The bales of straw are mixed with wood, which supports the framework of the structure, while the walls are built with straw, wood, trass-lime plaster, and clay, acting as energy-saving insulation

Italian designer sets trend in motion as he constructs a two-storey building with straw

Straw-bale houses were much sturdier than the story of The Three Little Pigs would have one believe. In reality, constructions with these materials would withstand both the huffing and puffing of any wolf. Italian designer, Michael Reichegger kickstarted off this trend, the spotlight has once again fallen on the hitherto abandoned homebuilding material.

Reichegger and an architectural community known as A15 used straw as the main building material for a two-story house in South Tyrol, Italy, supporting the goal of an “ecological, resource-conserving design.” The bales of straw are mixed with wood, which supports the framework of the structure, while the walls are built with straw, wood, trass-lime plaster, and clay, acting as energy-saving insulation in the winter.

This trend revives one of the oldest methods for creating homes. Mankind has been building homes out of straw and mud for thousands of years, but baled straw as a modern building material emerged in the 19th century, with the invention of the baling machine. And its resurgence in recent decades as a more environmentally-friendly building technique is based on these advantages of energy efficiency, while also appealing to the sensation of returning to earlier times, not to mention the absence of toxic substances in the construction process, along with its up to 77 times one million cost-saving production process

Straw is an abundantly common agricultural waste product, which makes it a very cheap material that is also easily procured in most parts of the world.

According to the specialised architectural studio Meta2020:

“For the production of straw bales and their transport to the construction site, much less energy is needed than for the production of other insulating materials, up to 77 times less than for the production of mineral wool, for example.”

For house owners wanting to build a comfortable space for themselves on a tight budget, they might find themselves fascinated with the concept of a straw house. The material is inexpensive, easily grown, and soaks up planet-warming carbon.

The founder of Patagonia, an outdoor recreation clothing brand, Yvon Chouinard has been among its strongest advocates. According to him,

“There are one million new home starts in the United States every year. With only 5% of the domestic straw production, you could have enough bales for one million 2,000-square-foot homes,” Chouinard told Fast Company in August 2023.

The architect Eve Blanco, who builds this type of housing in Asturias, uses straw as her main building material because it increases the thermal capacity of the house in a natural way, which makes it possible to dispense with heating and air conditioning costs. To achieve optimum energy consumption, the homes she builds have a greenhouse that captures solar radiation, which translates into a savings of between 30% and 40%.

This is due to the fact that straw-bale houses seek to achieve an airtight space to maintain the temperature and regulate the air with a filtering and ventilation system that prevents heat loss. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the average family in the U.S. spends up to $2,000 annually on electricity, with heating and cooling producing approximately 441 million tons of carbon pollution each year.

Yet the powerful insulation of straw bales can cut those bills by up to 75%, reducing pollution that has contributed to a rise in global temperatures and an increase in severe weather events like wildfires.

Straw is also a tool for fire-resistant construction, and may offer increased protection. Although straw in a field may catch fire easily, the straw bales used in construction are tightly compacted to contain very little air. As a result, they will not easily combust. Bales covered with plaster or stucco are fire-resistant and provide even greater insulation. Other siding materials such as wood or aluminum are less desirable, since any gaps allow more air along the straw-bale surface and increase the risk of fire.

However, despite its great potential, cost is the main barrier to the popularisation of the straw-bale home. Although they could be cheaper than conventional homes, in practice this is only true if one opts for the self-build option. Some future owners may need to learn how to build straw-bale walls and thus reduce the cost of their home, because otherwise it is comparable in price to a house made of bricks and cement, or even more expensive.



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