June 2009: Building with bales

June 2009: Building with bales

If you’ve done any reading about straw-bale construction, you know that the epicenter of American straw-bale enthusiasm is far away, in states like Arizona and Utah. But there are a number of straw-bale houses in Central Virginia, including those that Fred Oesch has designed. Skeptics might question the use of a moisture-sensitive material in this humid climate—water can wreak havoc in straw-bale walls—but Oesch says that the benefits are worth the extra care needed to keep the bales dry.

A straw-bale wall on the north side of Mark and Lisa’s home.

“Workmanship counts,” he says. “And I think that’s across the board whether in the Southwest or in a more humid area.”  From procuring the straw to storing it before construction, keeping it dry is paramount, but so is all the detail work (window framing, door jambs) that ensures no water can get into finished walls.

Answering other possible worries about the material, Oesch explains, “It’s not a fire hazard because typically you encase it in a stucco finish, interior and exterior.” Fretting about the idea that mice will eat the house? Unlike hay, Oesch says, straw has “no seeds or anything that’s a food to attract vermin.”

Unconventional though it may be, straw-bale construction’s advantages are many. Oesch likes its high insulation value and the fact that it’s a readily renewable, local resource. And, he says, “For an owner-builder, it’s very cheap and very user-friendly. You can stack straw bales pretty quickly.” Debbie Davis also tried her hand at applying lime plaster, an alternative to stucco, to her straw-bale walls.

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As in both houses profiled here, Oesch typically uses straw bale as an “infill” material (meaning it does not bear weight, but rather provides insulation and thermal mass). Weighing considerations from square footage (thick bale walls cut down on interior space) to solar movement, he incorporates straw bales as one of many strategies for upping the energy-efficiency of his designs.

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