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Step Back Big Bad Wolf, These Straw Homes Have Got You Beat



"Well, obviously, there's a certain amount of bias based on the Three Little Pigs." Keary Conwright laughs this into the phone when asked what concerns he hears about straw and clay building methods.


Conwright is both a builder and building technologist at KC Natural Homes. He took time out of his schedule to discuss common concerns about strawbale construction with me. (And yes, strawbale construction refers to homes made of straw.)


And I ask you to bear with me here if your only experience of straw homes is from stories like the Three Little Pigs or images of straw-thatched huts in tropical, faraway places.


You're probably shaking your head at the idea of a straw-filled home. And, as a Canadian who experiences frequent bouts of -30℃ (or more), I understand the hesitation and skepticism around strawbale construction. But I ask you to stay with me and keep an open mind as we dive into this functional and ancient building method.


So let's get started with the basics…


What is strawbale construction?


Strawbale construction is an all-natural building method involving timber-framed walls filled with a straw mix (typically made up of woodchips, clay, and, of course, straw). After adding the fill, it's sealed and covered in clay plaster.


The roofs are often made with water-proof materials and a large overhang to keep the building dry. The exterior walls feature a lime-stone-like plaster to protect the home from rain and snow and a stone skirt (stones frame the bottom portion of the wall around the building).


These natural elements offer insulating, temperature-regulating, and humidity-regulating qualities, making this a functional housing option—even where the temperature drops to frostbite-delivering levels.


This building method was used throughout history but phased out for faster and cheaper building options (what we now consider conventional construction).

If it got phased out, why use this building method now?


Conwright, and natural building enthusiasts in general, encourage a return to natural building methods because of the benefits to your health and the environment.


Benefits of strawbale homes include:

Better air quality

This building technique offers many benefits, and to Conwright, the biggest one is its health benefits.


Conwright asks me if I've ever walked into a new home and experienced that "new home smell?" He shares that this smell is from the off-gassing of common housing elements like carpets. It's not uncommon for off-gassing to cause physical problems for people regularly exposed to it. Reducing the amount of off-gassing around you can only do your health good.


Strawbale walls don't require vapour barriers, synthetic insulation, and paints, all of which contribute to poor indoor air quality from their off-gassing. Conwright says that materials like clay can help remove toxic off-gassing that may enter the home.


Energy savings

Straw and clay act as insulators within the wall system. Their density and natural materiality are great insulators for both hot and cold weather. Resulting in 25-40% less spending on heating and cooling, according to Strawbale Construction Canada.


Conwright also shares that clay plaster makes a breathable wall. This means clay regulates humidity levels by holding onto excess humidity and then redistributing it as the levels lower.


All this is to say that the use of HVAC systems is significantly reduced. The home's walls play a significant role in heating, cooling, and overall environmental regulation of keeping a home comfortable.


Long-lasting

According to EcoNest Building Company, a prominent natural building company, the lifetime of a straw building can be at the far end of 200 years. And Conwright tells me that, "all the buildings that I do are engineered to stand up to earthquakes." All this adds up to mean that the longevity of a home like this isn't something we need to worry about.


Eco-friendly

Monika Shekhar Gupta, an associate professor at the Amity School of Architecture and Planning, explains that ordinary construction methods place a significant demand on our environment. She goes on to say, "construction alternatives have promising potential for the construction industry needs to introduce natural renewable materials that offer low impact and low embodied energy."


What about things like mould?


A common concern expressed when discussing strawbale construction is a fear of mould. Conwright addresses this concern by explaining the breathability of the walls. In strawbale construction, breathability refers to the fact that moisture can not get trapped in the wall to create mould. This quality actually makes strawbale less likely to mould than conventional buildings.


In a conventional build, if there is a tear in the vapour barrier, "moisture gets in, gets trapped, and can't escape. You get wet wood, and that creates mould," Conwright says.


On top of this, the EcoNest Building Company reports that the amount of indoor mould in a completed strawbale home isn't elevated. The levels are lower than the mould expected in most outdoor environments.


How does the price compare to typical building methods?


Another concern surrounding this form of construction is the cost. "People always seem to think because it's not the normal type of construction that it's going to cost more," says Conwright. He then explains that while the need for labour is higher, the costs are on par with a medium to upper-budget conventional build.


The nature of this type of building means that almost anyone can participate in the building process, so Conwright encourages people to find volunteers to help. This, he says, will lower building costs. It also creates a sense of community while working. Conwright thinks it recalls the idea of barn-raising when agricultural communities would come together to help a family build their barns and homes.

The Three Little Pigs may make you think that conventional building is the only way to build a home. But, after exploring all that straw has to offer, I think it's safe to say this is a viable housing option. And with all the benefits of strawbale homes in mind, I can confidently say, step back, Big Bad Wolf, our straw home has got you beat.


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