A huff and a puff

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A forward-looking council has just commissioned its first houses in straw bale construction.

straw bale houseI was truly heartened to read a story in today’s Telegraph about women’s co-operative Amazon Nails, which specialises in environmentally friendly housing, being commissioned to build Britain’s first straw council houses.

Only six have currently been commissioned, by North Kesteven County Council in Lincolnshire, but it’s hoped that many more will follow.

There are many sound reasons for building in straw. To start with, such houses cost far less than conventional buildings – £60,000 on average instead of £80,000. They are also less polluting, especially as they use less concrete. The houses are so well-insulated and energy-efficient that they save householders around 80 per cent on their heating bills (the planned houses will be connected to the gas grid for cooking only, and will be heated by woodburners in winter).

They also make use of a waste product – enough surplus straw is produced in the UK each year to build 250,000 homes, and God knows there is a profound need for social housing, which will probably increase rapidly as hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes in this recession.

My first encounter with straw bale housing was about a decade ago when our friends E and K built themselves a bale house to live in (above). They had been living in a 6ft caravan and E was now pregnant, so something had to give. Straw bale construction was in its infancy then and they build a load-bearing structure. Very few people do this now, as it means you’re very limited in the heights and widths of walls, doors and windows – instead, modern straw bale houss are usually timber-framed and you use bales as infill rather than bricks or breeze blocks.

truth holeBeing a couple of feet thick, the insulation properties of the straw are truly amazing. We popped down from time to time while it was going up and it was astonishing to find how warm it was inside even when the openings weren’t glazed, it was winter, and there was no heating. Once E&K took occupation and fired up their tiny woodburner cooker, they lived with their big window open for much of the year round, to let OUT the heat. The walls, both inside and out, were lime-plastered – a wonderful finish that gradually turns (chemically speaking) back into rock over time. Like most straw bale houseowners, they left a ‘truth hole’ (right) to show that the house really is made of straw. 

I have my secret fantasies about having a house built (too much watching of Grand Designs on telly) and it definitely involves straw for areas such as utility rooms and porches. Straw, lime plaster, lots of energy-efficient double glazing, exposed timbers, terrazzo flooring. Oh la, all a pipe dream really, unless my architect friend M decides to make one for me out of the kindness of his heart.

Still, a girl can dream…

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