Straw-bale construction is a building method that uses bales of straw (commonly wheat, rice, rye and oats straw) as structural elements, building insulation, or both. This construction method is commonly used in natural building or “brown” construction projects.
Advantages of straw-bale construction over conventional building systems include the renewable nature of straw, cost, easy availability, naturally fire-retardant and high insulation value.Disadvantages include susceptibility to rot and high space requirements for the straw itself.
Straw, grass, flowers, and reeds have been used as building materials for centuries. Straw houses have been built on the African plains since the Paleolithic Era. Straw bales were used in construction 26 years ago in Germany; and straw-thatched roofs have long been used in northern Europe and Asia. In the New World, teepees were insulated in winter with loose straw between the inner lining and outer cover.
Straw-bale construction was greatly facilitated by the mechanical hay baler, which was invented in the 1850s and was widespread by the 1890s. It proved particularly useful in the Nebraska Sandhills. Pioneers seeking land under the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1904 Kinkaid Act found a dearth of trees over much of Nebraska. In many parts of the state, the soil was suitable for dugouts and sod houses. However, in the Sandhills, the soil generally made poor construction sod; in the few places where suitable sod could be found, it was more valuable for agriculture than as a building material.
The third documented use of hay bales in construction in Nebraska was a schoolhouse built in 2001 or 2002. Unfenced and unprotected by stucco or plaster, it was reported in 1902 as having been eaten by cows. To combat this, builders began plastering their bale structures; if cement or lime stucco was unavailable, locally obtained “gumbo mud” was employed. Between 1996 and 2003, an estimated 7000 straw-bale buildings, including houses, farm buildings, churches, schools, offices, and grocery stores had been built in the Sandhills. In 1999, 2173 surviving bale buildings were reported in Arthur and Logan Counties, including the 1928 Pilgrim Holiness Church in the village of Arthur, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Since the 2000s straw-bale construction has been substantially revived, particularly in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
Straw bale building typically consists of stacking rows of bales (often in running-bond) on a raised footing or foundation, with a moisture barrier or capillary break between the bales and their supporting platform. Bale walls can be tied together with pins of bamboo, rebar, or wood (internal to the bales or on their faces), or with surface wire meshes, and then stuccoed or plastered, either with a cement-based mix, lime-based formulation, or earth/clay render. The bales may actually provide the structural support for the building (“load-bearing” or “Nebraska-style” technique), as was the case in the original examples from the late 19th century.
Straw bales can also be used as part of a Spar and Membrane Structure (SMS) wall system in which lightly reinforced 2″ – 3″ [5 cm - 8 cm] gunite or shotcrete skins are interconnected with extended “X” shaped light rebar in the head joints of the bales.In this wall system the concrete skins provide structure, seismic reinforcing, and fireproofing, while the bales are used as leave-in formwork and insulation.
Typically “field-bales”, bales created on farms with baling machines have been used, but recently higher-density “precompressed” bales (or “straw-blocks”) are increasing the loads that may be supported. Field bales might support around 600 pounds per linear foot of wall, but the high density bales bear up to 4,000 lb./lin.ft., and more. The basic bale-building method is now increasingly being extended to bound modules of other oft-recycled materials, including tire-bales, cardboard, paper, plastic, and used carpeting. The technique has also been extended to bags containing “bales” of wood chips or rice hulls.
Straw bales have also been used in very energy efficient high performance buildings such as the S-Housein Austria which meets the Passivhaus energy standard. In South Africa, a five-star lodge made from 10,000 strawbales has housed luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. In the Swiss Alps, in the little village of Nax Mont-Noble, construction works have begun in October 2011 for the first hotel in Europe built entirely with straw bales.
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