Sensible Home: House of straw can stack up

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Question: I want a natural way to build an energy-efficient house without plastics, foams, adhesives, etc. Straw-bale houses seem to be natural. Is the straw-bale construction efficient for low utility bills?

- Gail H.
Answer: Straw-bale houses date back more than a century in the United States. And today, they're becoming more popular throughout the world because of their energy efficiency, because they make constructive use of a waste material, and because of global-warming concerns.

Straw is considered a waste product from farming, and thus creates a disposal problem. The two most common types of straw in this country come from wheat and rice. Straw-bale sizes are typically referred to as two-string and three-string bales, with the latter used more often for houses.

The costs of building a straw-bale house are equivalent to those of a standard lumber-framed house. Bales are available everywhere, but if you are lucky enough to live near a farmer who has a straw-disposal problem, the cost should be extremely low. Given the simple construction methods these houses require, you and your family could do much of the wall assembly yourselves, to lower costs even further.

When placed on its side, a three-string bale is about 23 inches wide. When packed to a normal density, it produces an insulation value of greater than R-50. That is several times greater insulation than is found in the typical lumber-framed house wall. Smaller two-string bales will yield up to R-32.

Because their walls are so thick, straw-bale houses are very quiet inside. And depending on the type of finishing material used on the interior and exterior, the walls breathe. That improves indoor air quality compared with a standard house with tightly sealed, vapor-barrier walls.

Moreover, properly compressed straw bales are fire-resistant. There are enough air pockets remaining to create the high insulation value, but not enough to sustain rapid combustion. When the interior and exterior surfaces are encapsulated with stucco or concrete, a fire has little chance to spread.

As finishes for straw-bale houses, soft plaster and gypsum are both attractive and durable. The plaster has a comfortable feel and is easy to work with, and the result is a natural softness to the walls' smooth curves and corners.

Straw-bale house walls can be self-supporting. The compressive strength of the bales is high when they are stacked. Long threaded steel rods run from a horizontal roof plate down to a concrete foundation or slab. When nuts are tightened on the rods, the bales are forced together.

Another construction method, infill, uses post-and-beam framing with bales in between them for insulation only. Both construction methods produce a strong, yet earthquake-compliant house.

The following sources (most of them on the West Coast) offer more information on straw-bale houses:

Design Forward, www.designforward.net.

Living Shelter Design Architects, 888-248-2114, www.livingshelter.com.

Natural Building Resources, www.strawbalecentral.com.

One World Design, www.one-world-design.com.

Syncronos Design, www.buildingwithawareness.com.

Q: I have a refrigerator that is only about 10 years old, and it still works well. I just remodeled my kitchen, and it does not match now. Should I have it repainted or just get a new one?

- Jenny R.
A: You can plan on spending a couple of hundred dollars to have a refrigerator professionally repainted. Considering the efficiency improvements over the last decade, it would make more sense to buy a new one.

Either sell or give your current refrigerator to a charity or to Habitat for Humanity so it will continue to be used. If the company that delivers your new fridge takes the old one away, it will likely be discarded and not used again.


Send inquiries to James Dulley, The Inquirer, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45244, or visit www.dulley.com.

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