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 The Last Straw -
 The International  Journal of Straw  Bale and Natural  Building

- Promoting natural building, and sustainable design and development, through research, training, education and consulting services.

Have We Forgotten Something?

Have We Forgotten Something?
by Dr. Owen Geiger

As strawbale enters the mainstream, the current trend in the US (and many other areas) is to build large, expensive homes. In Colorado , for example, the area I’m most familiar with, most new homes being built are in the $250,000 to $500,000 (US dollars) price range. I’m not aware of any strawbale contractors who only build small, affordable homes.

Part of me yearns for simpler times that unfortunately appear to be falling by the wayside. For example, the step-by-step instructions in A Straw-Bale Primer (by Stephen O. MacDonald and Orien MacDonald) and Build it With Bales (by Matts Myhrman and Stephen O. MacDonald) have been replaced by books that focus primarily on “show homes,” building codes, dealing with contractors, and the complexities of modern building systems. While there is certainly a need for this type of information, I would like to see more articles, books and videos that show just how simple, practical and easy strawbale can be. I know my work will continue to explore ways to keep housing affordable.

The demand for upscale homes, the reliance on contractors to do the work, and the need to meet building codes creates a system that adds complexity and drives costs up. One thing leads to another, and gradually affordable housing is harder and harder to obtain.

One downside of this added complexity is owner-builders often make more mistakes. Recent examples I’ve seen include doors and windows with flawed weatherproofing, inadequate roof overhangs, and no toe-ups. One example in particular stands out. The structure was built using loadbearing walls, with too few bales to carry the load. While the loadbearing method is fine for small, simple structures, the owners added way too many windows and doors in an attempt to create the “American dream.”

How much do we really need? Overbuilding is one of the most common regrets of homeowners. “If only I had built smaller, I would be done now!” people lament. Plan carefully: a few extra lines on the house plans can easily blow the budget and add months to the schedule.

I’m sure I could be happy in one of the historic strawbale houses in western Nebraska (or something similar). They were built in response to the local climate using materials readily at hand – meadow grass. Even without optimized techniques, engineered designs and building codes, these historic houses have endured for over 100 years. Just imagine what is possible with what we know now…

This points to the importance of small houses simply built, well built, and as much as possible, free of debt. One excellent resource on this subject is Small Strawbale: Natural Homes, Projects and Designs, by Bill and Athena Steen, and Wayne J. Bingham. As to be expected, like the Steen’s other books, Small Strawbale is well written, with many wonderful photographs. However, what really sets Small Strawbale apart from similar books are the several dozen illustrations. Mr. Bingham’s illustrations provide the necessary details and birds-eye perspective views that owner-builders and designers are looking for.

The authors describe the houses featured in their book as representing “a different kind of beauty, one that is born of hard work, simplicity, and an attempt to reestablish a connection with nature… they are projects the average person can afford.” This is the direction I hope to see for strawbale.

Dr. Owen Geiger is the Director of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building and a correspondent for TLS.

(This article first appeared in The Last Straw:

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