The first little pig was right!
Today's houses of straw are so sturdy they can't be huffed and puffed down. People like their earth-friendliness.
William Campbell was working on his doctorate in music in Eugene, Ore., in 1997 when he and his wife were suddenly taken with the urge to live in an "earthy environment." So while Mr. Campbell was writing his dissertation, the couple began researching ways to build a home that would be more connected to the environment, one that would have a spirit they were sure they'd never find in a traditionally built house.Skip to next paragraph
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Campbell found his answer the day he walked into a local store devoted to natural living. There, on the bookshelves, he found a book called "The Straw Bale House." Intrigued, he and his wife began exploring straw-bale building, which involves stacking bales of straw into walls, which are then encased in plaster or drywall.
The Campbells learned it was a method of construction that, in the US, dates back to the 1890s, when Nebraska settlers on treeless plains used bales of straw to build sturdy homes. They also learned of a small but growing movement to bring back what proponents say is a remarkably energy-efficient and earth-friendly way of building.
"We went to a couple of wall raisings [of new straw-bale homes] in Oregon and Arizona," says Campbell. "They are kind of like old-fashioned barn raisings. It was very community-minded and very friendly. We got really into the whole idea."
So in early 2000, after graduating and accepting a job offer in Tucson, Ariz., Campbell, his wife, and their two children moved into a 24-foot trailer on a piece of desert property and began laying the foundation for their own straw-bale home. Over the next eight months, with help from friends and occasional assistance from paid contractors, the Campbells built the house they'd dreamed of: a 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, with passive solar energy, as well as a separate 400-square-foot studio for Bill.
"The whole idea for the house was to wake up informed by the earth," he says, "and to go bed thankful for all that the earth provides....
"When you walk into a house that's built for mass consumption, there's no feeling of love, no feeling of warmth or spirit," he adds. "But all these things are present in a house that's built by hand. It's especially true with straw-bale houses.
"There's a sense of openness in our home almost a freedom a warmth, a beauty. I can't describe it any other way," he says. "There's a sense of absolute peace and serenity."
Since the mid-1980s, more and more people have been drawn to straw-bale building for the same reasons as the Campbells: the user-friendly nature of the materials; the fact that straw bales are energy-efficient, with a high "R-value" (or degree of thermal resistance), which can reduce energy costs by as much as 75 percent; the aesthetics of thick walls and deep-set windows; and the environmental pluses of turning waste material into a solid home, instead of cutting down trees.
"It's an amazing material, and interest in it is ever on the increase," says Athena Steen, who, with her husband, wrote the books "The Straw Bale House" and "The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes."
"As more buildings go up, there are more examples for people to see," she says. "For those who've been leery of it, all they have to do is see one, feel one, and they're sold. It's dispelling people's notions that it's only good for dry climates."
The Strawbale Building Registry lists more than 1,000 straw-bale homes and buildings, a number that rises each year. Interest in such building is growing worldwide, from Mongolia to Egypt and from Japan to Chile. Aficionados say that straw bales work in almost any climate, wet or dry, because the bales are enclosed and set on a foundation.
"The three rules are good 'shoes,' a good 'hat,' and a 'coat' that breathes," says architect David Arkin, whose northern California firm has built nearly a dozen straw-bale houses since 1997. "Good shoes are a good foundation, keeping the bales up off the ground. A good hat is a good overhang on your roof, that keeps all but the most driving rain off your walls.
"And a coat that breathes is the finish that you put on the walls stucco, cement, or earth plaster that allows moisture vapor to move through the wall so that if the bales get wet, they can dry out again," he explains.
Follow those three rules, says Mr. Arkin, and you can do anything with straw bales a modern home, a "hobbit house," even a skyscraper. "For a lot of people, including seasoned builders," he adds, "it just makes sense."