Builders Plan Straw Houses That Withstand Huffing and Puffing

New companies are springing up to turn the tons of straw US farmers burn each year into substitutes for wood and paper

EVERY year, American farmers produce about 200 million tons of straw that they usually burn or plow back into the ground. But builders and industrial users are finding new uses for this old material.

Weyerhaeuser Company, a large forest products firm, has begun testing straw as a feedstock in their Springfield paper mill in Oregon. In California, Mansion Industries is selling prefabricated houses made from compressed straw panels. Here in Austin, Texas, more than half a dozen straw-bale houses have been built over the past 18 months.

``As the timber availability issue grows more severe, people are going to be looking for alternatives,'' explains John Simonsen, assistant professor in the Department of Forest Products at Oregon State University. ``There are things you can do with straw that will replace wood.''

Long used by European paper mills, Weyerhaeuser's Springfield mill could ultimately use up to 400,000 tons of straw a year in its papermaking operation. The company became interested in straw, in part, because of Oregon's new clean air regulations, which limit the amount of straw farmers can burn.

Weyerhaeuser is seeing how straw will work with wood chips and recycled paper now being used in the mill, says company spokesman Paul Barnum. ``If it works, straw could replace or augment our supply of wood chips by 20 percent,'' he says.

Builders are rediscovering straw. As far back as 8300 BC, straw was an important constituent of adobe bricks and used in building the city of Jericho.

Homes built of straw

In the United States, straw-bale buildings appeared on the treeless plains of Nebraska shortly before the turn of the century. Using the mechanical baler, which turned straw into compact bales, the Nebraskans found they could use the bales as oversized bricks, which, when stuccoed, made excellent houses with a minimum of wood.

Today, straw-bale homes are gaining popularity throughout the Southwest. Pima County, Ariz. is reviewing building codes for straw-bale structures. Similar code revisions are being considered in New Mexico and Texas.

Straw-bale devotees point out that American farmers produce enough straw every year to build 2 million straw-bale homes.

``Straw bales have an R-value of about 50,'' says Duncan Echelson, an Austin-based contractor, who specializes in straw-bale construction. The R-value measures how well a material acts as an insulator. An inch of fiber glass, for instance, has an R-value of 3. ``Plus, straw-bale homes are a low-tech approach'' to home building, he says. ``People can build their own straw-bale home with little or no previous experience.''

Straw market in developing world

Another straw-building product, compressed straw panels, are gaining attention. Developed in the 1930s in Sweden, the panels are an energy-efficient alternative to gypsum wallboard.

``Straw is a superior structural material compared to wood,'' says Robert Glassco, president of Los Angeles-based Mansion Industries. ``Straw is more fire- and insect-resistant than wood,'' he says. Straw shelters could help alleviate housing shortages throughout the developing world, suggests Mr. Glassco, whose company has developed housing kits made of compressed straw panels.

Mansion recently shipped two house kits to Mexico, and the company has a $10 million letter of intent from Mexican authorities who want to begin manufacturing straw panel homes.

Because the straw panels are flexible, Glassco claims that the new homes are highly earthquake resistant, which would be a significant benefit in California.

Straw panel manufacturers are operating in Belgium, Australia, China, and the Philippines.

Stramit, a British manufacturer, is working with local businessmen to open a straw panel factory in Perryton, Texas. The tiny farming town produces vast amounts of wheat and thousands of tons of straw every year.

The factory should begin producing straw panels this fall, says Myron McCartor, of the Perryton Economic Development Corporation. Mr. McCartor says the facility will benefit the local economy and local farmers. ``Burning straw has an environmental consequence and it can cause erosion,'' he says. ``With this product, we can turn a waste product into a cash crop.''

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