Straw bale homes utilize easily available materials and convey many advantages to homeowners. Though similar to cob homes in terms of their use of natural components, straw bale construction differs wildly from cob construction. One area where both building methods shine is that they’re both well suited to coverage with Real Milk Paint once complete. Learn more about straw bale homes, their pros and cons and how organizations like Community Rebuilds take advantage of this affordable technique to help others achieve ownership of a safe, warm home of their own.
What Are Straw Bale Homes?
A straw bale home is a structure built using bales of straw either to create walls or as insulation for existing walls, and some creative builders even add a straw bale fence to complete the look. This straw bale construction method was first documented in 1896- 1897, when it was used to build a Nebraska schoolhouse. This structure stood tall, even without cement stucco or lime plaster, until around 1902, when it was eaten by cows! Straw bale construction after this included exterior plaster afterward for obvious reasons.
Often covered in lime wash or silicate dispersion paint after plastering, these environmentally friendly bale house structures usually utilize milk or clay paint to coat their interior walls after a layer of mud or plaster. Many straw bale builders also add moisture barriers like plastic sheeting to prevent water vapor from damaging walls. Suitable for hot and cold climates alike, straw bale wall homes retain heat and cold well, keeping you warm when temperatures dip and cool when hot weather occurs.
Straw Bale Construction Methods for Homes
Two main methods for straw bale construction exist: the Nebraska style and the infill method. A Nebraska-style straw bale house is built simply by piling bales on top of each other and creating support for the roof, paying attention to roof loads since they’re made from your choice of conventional materials. Covering the interior walls with plaster or mud, then painting mud brick walls is required to seal the interior of these structures.
The infill method is a bit more complex and structurally sound as it adds standard framed doors and window opening options to the design of straw bale wall homes. Like the Nebraska method, this method adds mud or plaster to interior walls, then requires painting plaster walls. Some straw bale wall home builders combine the two methods when they want to construct more complex structures, such as those with basements. Both methods, however, allow for addition of appropriate technology to the structure, including electrical boxes.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Straw Bale Building
Before you start planning the construction of a home built with straw bales, consider the advantages and disadvantages of this particular building method. Straw bale building offers numerous benefits to homeowners; however, these advantages come at a price.
Advantages of Straw Bale Construction
Attractive home design: Potential homeowners who want a more rustic look than conventional homes allow often turn to straw bale construction as an attractive alternative. Deep windows, easy-to-create hidey-holes and even natural shelving add a unique element to your home design, and the exterior and interior walls easily accept custom colors with your choice of Real Milk Paint when you want to achieve a polished final result.
Environmental friendliness: Made from agricultural leftovers, a straw bale home offers an eco-friendly living space due to its use of farm waste. Not only that, straw proves a highly renewable resource since it grows within a year instead of taking multiple years like trees. This biodegradable material takes very little energy for growing or harvesting as well, and since straw bales weigh less than bricks, concrete, steel or wood, they require less fossil fuel consumption for transport.
Customizable home construction: Since you can arrange materials any way you wish, it’s easy to create straw bale rooms perfectly sized for your home. You can stack materials at just the right height for your straw bale wall and configure materials in numerous ways to achieve satisfying views and simple access with window and door openings. If you prefer having walls in different shapes, you can also personalize their look by cutting them with knives or chainsaws.
Low fire hazard for a safe home: Tightly packed straw bales don’t burn as easily as numerous other building materials. This low fire hazard is due to reduced airflow achieved with tight packing of the straw bale wall that eliminates air pockets. During straw bale construction, you may have some fire hazards due to the materials not being highly packed yet, but once you finish your straw bale home, the flame-retardant nature of highly packed straw decreases risks to as low (or lower!) than traditional wood-frame home construction.
Simple sourcing and high affordability: Straw grows everywhere and quickly, making materials for straw bale wall construction easily available and readily affordable. In addition to low-cost components, straw bale walls typically offer exceptional energy efficiency. This energy-efficient design is due to the natural trombe effect, which lets your straw bale structure store heat and cold for a high insulation value, then release it to keep interior temperatures comfortable within your home.
Disadvantages of Straw Bale Construction
Require more space than conventional homes: The thick walls that provide energy efficiency to straw bale wall homes have a drawback in that they require more building space. Sheetrock walls typically run about 6 inches thick, while a straw bale wall is usually around 18 inches thick. This means that a straw bale home with the same exterior measurements as a conventional home has less functional interior space.
Need regular maintenance after construction: Straw bale wall homes have a biodegradable build that makes them great for the environment but rough on the homeowner who must maintain them. For example, most straw bale builders use lime plaster or earthen plaster to seal the straw wall construction once complete, and without regular (and proper!) maintenance, this can quickly break down, letting water enter the bales to create mold and mildew. Vapor barriers like tar paper can help with this issue by keeping out enough moisture to prevent damage.
Subject to moisture issues: The key factor to maintaining your straw bale wall home is keeping the material dry. When exposed to even moisture vapor, straw bales can mold, mildew, decay and even topple, so a moisture barrier like high stem walls, earth plaster or clay plaster on exterior walls and overhanging eaves can help. High humidity levels also cause problems with straw bale homes since there’s no real way to add a vapor barrier to block moisture content in the air. Likewise, once damp or wet, drying out the straw bales may be virtually impossible in highly humid areas.
Issues with gaps and pests: Even the best-built straw bale wall home requires constant vigilance to repair hairline cracks, prevent gaps and keep out pests. Cracks can occur in baled straw due to natural factors like earthquakes, and since there’s no frame to hold up purely straw-built homes, these structures can collapse if there’s damage to a load-bearing wall. Gaps can also occur in non-load-bearing walls, which can interfere with the natural flame-resistant effect by creating thermal breakpoints and allow pests inside.
Challenges with permitting and finding good builders: Though building codes exist in most states for straw bale homes, many city officials don’t allow them within their borders due to their unconventional look. Likewise, since these homes are so unconventional, it may be challenging to find straw bale building professionals to fulfill your creative vision. Additionally, some lenders may not want to provide funds for these structures, and many insurance companies refuse to insure them.
Painting Straw Bale Walls With Real Milk Paint
No matter how you build your straw bale home, the finish materials you use inside and out matter. Everyone has their own preferences, of course, but to achieve a truly sustainable home design, consider Real Milk Paint for adding color to your new world. Made with all-natural ingredients, nontoxic Real Milk Paint contains no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) so you can use it safely in confined spaces, and it biodegrades for an environmentally friendly finish. Plaster, stucco, cement, or other porous materials used to surface coat walls are a perfect surface to use milk paint without priming. Real Milk Paint does lend a unique advantage in that it is breathable. This means if moisture does find it’s way into the walls interior it can escape through the milk paint.
Safe for food contact and 100% organic, this paint comes in powder form and mixes at a 1:1 ratio with water so you can shake up a little or a lot, depending on the task at hand. Once you mix the paint, wait 15 to 20 minutes for it to dissolve, stir, then start painting. To avoid foaming and to get started right away, simply add our Anti-Foaming Agent to the mixture. Achieve the best results by keeping the paint stirred and consistent in viscosity by adjusting your mixture accordingly, then check the results at different lighting angles to be sure you have the right look.
Straw Bale Houses and Community Rebuilds
Founded in the mid-2000s by Emily Niehaus, Community Rebuilds seeks to improve housing conditions by boosting the quality of manufactured and trailer homes built prior to modern building codes. This mission then transformed into replacing those outdated homes with natural alternatives built with eco-friendliness and energy efficiency in mind. One of the main ways Community Rebuilds fulfills this task is by using straw bale construction methods.
A lack of knowledgeable professionals within the realm of straw bale construction plus the labor-intensive building methodology led Community Rebuilds to build an internship program. This program allows those interested in the craft to trade their labor for learning so more experienced professionals can enter the field of straw bale construction and boost its popularity. In that regard, the goals of Community Rebuilds coincide by increasing the number of builders available for this technique, thus making housing more affordable across the board.
Now that you know the ins and outs of straw bale construction, you can decide whether the building technique is right for your needs. No matter what you decide, though, Real Milk Paint remains a top-notch choice for delivering a polished, professional look to your DIY projects.