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Now for Sale: Straw Houses

One new technique for green building—making houses out of straw—actually draws on century-old ideas

(Malcom Fife/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

One of the rules of thumb of green building is that humans have know how to build solid, energy-efficient housing for centuries—we just haven't bothered recently. And in England, house-builders from the University of Bath and the company ModCell are now officially offering for commercial sale houses straight out of a fairytale. These houses are made of straw—but impervious to being “blown down” by a wayward wolf.

Straw was used as a building material for centuries, and it can actually be quite hardy. In America, as the Economist points out, mid-19th century settlers in the Nebraska Sandhills used straw to build houses when wood and clay were scarce. According to one source, there’s a straw building in the U.S. that has lasted 140 years so far.

Builders are hoping such longevity is a trend, but the new homes do have some updates from a century ago. They're not completely built of straw, for starters. (Something was learned from those three little pigs.) Rather, as Quartz reports, the straw's pressed into panels and framed with timber—basically formed into pieces of wall that can be plopped into place. The outsides of the buildings are covered in brick, and no straw remains exposed to the elements.  

Builders say that homeowners could save up to 90 percent on energy bills thanks to straw’s superior insulation capabilities. They point out, too, that when locally sourced, straw can save on construction costs while also making good use of the 3.8 million tons of cereal crop by-product produced in the U.K. Current pricing on the homes show they are a little cheaper than traditionally built houses in the area.

One of the leaders of the research team, Professor Pete Walker, told the Guardian:

“The construction sector must reduce its energy consumption by 50% and its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, so radical changes are needed to the way we approach house building.

“Straw is a low-cost and widely available food co-product that offers real potential for ultra-low carbon housing throughout the UK.”

So, is straw the golden ticket to green living? Researchers are hopeful, but there are a few stumbling blocks: for example, many building codes don’t permit it, and more humid, rainy climates may not be suitable for such construction. Straw walls are often thicker than the traditional kind, shrinking a home’s square footage. But in the long run, they may be one good option for keeping safe and warm, while saving energy.

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