'Whatever happened to...?' Straw-bale houses

Straw-bale construction, an alternative way to build homes and other structures, is still making inroads in the United States and around the world after a 1980s revival.

Building houses from bales of straw was first popular among Nebraska homesteaders in the early 1900s. The mechanical hay-baler made it possible. The Sand Hills region had few trees, and the soil was not conducive to making sod houses. Builders used straw bales like bricks and coated them with plaster. Today, steel reinforcing rods are used, and bales are stuccoed.

The current renaissance began in the late 1980s, says Judy Knox. She and Matts Myhrman went to Nebraska to research the straw houses. Their findings led to Out on Bale, a straw-bale-construction education organization. After a crush of media attention in the early 1990s, interest took off. "The Straw Bale House," by Athena Swentzell Steen, et al. (Chelsea Green, 1994), has sold nearly 100,000 copies.

Since straw-bale houses are made from the stems of harvested grains, the idea is very attractive in poor farming regions worldwide. Several of the structures have been built in Mongolia, and many former East-bloc countries are interested. Belarus reportedly has at least 50 straw-bale structures. Some of them are government buildings.

In the US, the cost of building a straw-bale home is about the same as building a conventional one. And in some states, building codes are an obstacle. But the houses are very energy efficient and amazingly quiet, say those who live in them. One owner in Vermont, for example, had to add a doorbell - he couldn't hear anyone knocking.

If you wonder 'Whatever happened to...' write us at: One Norway Street,

Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail: whatever@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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