Straw Bale

Mon, 12/09/2013 - 15:35 — Compost Stu

The seething siren of cicadas steals the esses from sound. Summer is here, sizing us up for a hot one. The relative cool of the mornings gives respite from the sizzler in the midday. My airy eyrie allows breeze to flow through while I take in the view. Over my shoulder and down the hill, my straw bale homes ochred walls have not yet collected the sun. The eaves hang like steel wings around the walls, keeping them cool and dry. Inside, the night time temperatures preside, and coolness prevails. More than once, on a hot day, visitors have commented on how quiet my air conditioner is. Straw bale is silent indeed. Sometimes, when it gets really hot, I can smell the lime in the render. It smells like a cave, cool and earthy. The only drawback to having a straw bale home is that it is really difficult to leave when it’s hot outside.
I decided to build from straw for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is incredibly easy. As I am essentially lazy, simplicity speaks to me in volumes. The walls went up in no time and rendering was just slopping mud around. Straw lends itself well to sculpting. My place has curves, bulges and even a face shaped into a straw bale buttress. Secondly, it is very sustainable. Straw, as opposed to hay, is only the stalk of a field crop such as barley or wheat. The flowers have already been harvested for beer and bread etc., so the concept that we can build a house, eat bread and drink beer from the same stuff is amazing. It doesn’t need further processing, just bale it up and build it up. Rendering can be done with locally extracted clays, mixed with borax (fire retardant and rodent deterrent) and chaff. Thirdly, its insulating properties are second to none. Cool in summer, warm in winter, my power consumption for temperature control extends to a few days on the chainsaw to cut wood for an efficient home-made slow combustion fire place. Lastly, it is a very fireproof. After the Victorian bushfires a few years ago, the CSIRO undertook research at the request of an avid straw bale enthusiast who was sure any new building codes designed to withstand fire should include straw bale. With little or no oxygen inside the walls, there is nothing to burn, and when render is made from earth or lime, it can withstand enormous temperatures. During a test burn on a straw bale structure, outside temperatures reached over 1000 deg.C while inside temperatures peaked at only 35 deg C. This represents a maximum intensity bushfire and a fire front equal to 29Kw per sq. metre, the acceptable standard under the current bushfire code AS3959. I had originally seen pictures of what was left of a house after a wildfire in the US. Only the straw bale part of the structure remained intact. In our area, where many dwellings are surrounded by bushland, I can think of no better life insurance policy than owning a straw bale home.

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