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Strawbale Houses

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Not a fairy tale!

Today’s guest author is Richard Griffith, an environmentalist, gardener and carpenter who lives in an energy-efficient house and earns his bacon in Grey County.

“The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” is an amusing account from the wolf’s point of view. The wolf readily admits that he ate the first two pigs, but claims he can hardly be blamed for logically following through on the rare opportunity for an easy meal. “Who”, asks the wolf, “would be silly enough to build his house out of straw?”

Well, actually, I would. In December 2001, I moved into my 1800 sq. ft. strawbale house on 9 acres southwest of Collingwood. Despite the premature passing of my much-lamented porcine predecessors, I love this house. It’s two storeys high with a full basement, lots of windows on the south side, and a gable roof of steel. Its only heat source, other than passive solar energy, is a masonry heater. More on that later.

The structural composition of the house is called “modified post-and-beam”. Each “post” is a strip of 3/4 inch plywood, 14″ wide and 10 feet high, with three 2 x 4’s nailed to it. These “bucks”, as they are known, form the vertical framework for the doors and windows. Similar bucks run horizontally along the top, holding the vertical bucks together. Each floor is supported by a long, heavy parallam beam, which is formed from glued-together wood chips. The huge roof beam is also made of parallam.

When the first white settlers arrived in Nebraska around 1880, there wasn’t much with which to build. The prairies aren’t noted for their towering pine forests. So they built their first houses with straw, and some of those early dwellings still stand. A load-bearing strawbale house is thus known as “Nebraska-style”. My house is not Nebraska – the straw’s primary purpose is insulation (commonly held to be about R40, compared to the R20 of average suburban walls). There are, however, some significant structural details involving the straw. These are ordinary rectangular bales, 18″ long, 14″ wide, and of varying lengths up to about 38″. We stacked them like bricks and laid them on edge (thus necessitating the 14″ wide bucks). After plugging gaps and holes with loose straw, we fastened 1″ galvanized wire to the walls, inside and out. The walls were then literally “sewn” together with long bale needles and binder twine. This process transformed each wall from a collection of random bales into an extremely strong, integral structure. In certain places, we also pounded wooden dowels into the walls. My engineer required heavy wire lath at all the wall and ceiling corners, thus substantially reinforcing the whole thing. Finally, the entire dwelling was coated with two layers of stucco. Eventually it will receive a third coat, the colour coat. Ain’t no big bad wolf gonna blow down this house, fella.

The wood-burning masonry heater is the focal point of the house, separating kitchen from living room. It heats by radiation, not, as a fireplace does, by convection. It’s a huge structure, built on top of cinder blocks, which are themselves laid on a reinforced concrete slab. The limestone itself is from a quarry near Wiarton. There is even a bake oven on the kitchen side of the heater.      Everyone wants to know if the house has been warm enough. Well, in the first winter, no. But I was using wet wood, which, as every country child knows, is a no-no. Since then, I’ve stacked my wood properly, insulated the basement ceiling and plugged a few other little gaps. The next year, despite many minus 30 nights, I had no trouble staying warm. Most mornings, I started a fire first thing, and sometimes a 3-4 hour burn would keep the house warm right through to the following day. I made it through the cold winter of 2002-2003 with five bush cords. Mind you, sunshine is always most welcome.I have to add that this house still isn’t finished. I’ve attached a mudroom, but it doesn’t have all its interior stucco yet. Solar panels were installed last November. Eventually I will attach a small greenhouse to the kitchen, and there are few carpets. To be sure, this is a long-term project.  It takes time to age good swine, don’t you know.

By Richard Griffith

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