Our environment has always provided an abundant variety of natural materials useful for creating safe and comfortable shelter. Grasses, leaves, thatch, straw and earth have been used as building materials as long as human beings have set up the most temporary as well as the more enduring dwellings.
The first known bale buildings were constructed in the USA in the late 1800s. When the first European settlers arrived in the “Sandhills” of Nebraska they were in desperate need of sheltering from the prevailing harsh climate. The necessity to readily improvise, the abundance of meadow grasses in contrast to the scarcity of local timber, and finally the introduction of horse and steam powered balers lead to the creation of the first permanent baled hay structures. The baled hay proved to be equal if not superior to the standard building materials of the time. Bale structures ranged from barns and stables to churches and residential homes. They proved to be durable, safe and comfortable, and most of them still exist and are in good shape today.
The simplest form of bale building was dominantly used in the Sandhills. Also called “Nebraska Style”, this loadbearing technique involved stacking bales of meadow hay or straw on a foundation, overlapping the bales at the corners and maintaining what masons call a “running bond”, where each unit sits over the vertical joint between the two units below it. The bales were usually either stacked dry and pinned to the bales below with metal pins or wooden stakes, or the unpinned bales were laid up using mud or cement/lime based mortar between the horizontal rows. It has been widely confirmed that at least sixty bale buildings were erected in the Sandhills of Nebraska.
Bale building stagnated between the 1950s and the early 1980s. This was probably due to the increased availability of mass-produced building materials, rendering it unnecessary for homeowners and builders to depend on locally produced building materials. Furthermore, environmental concerns such as pollution and atmospheric deterioration as well as awareness of the problems created by using up non-renewable resources were probably less understood and urgent to the majority of people then they are today.
Strawbale building became popular again in the late 1970s. The revival of bale building was greatly inspired by an article called “Baled Hay”, published in 1974 in a book of essays entitled “Shelter”. Roger Welsh, the author of the article, had carried out extensive research on indigenous and folk architecture. He strongly believed that the use of baled straw was an exceptionally valuable alternative to modern building materials as well as an excellent example of what can be learned from the past.
Another important article, which appeared in the mainstream magazine “Fine Homebuilding” (USA) in 1983, described a strawbale post and beam cottage built by the architect Jon Hammond in California.
This article inspired a number of people, including strawbale pioneer David Bainbridge, co-author of the “Straw Bale House” (USA, 1994). He published his first major contribution on strawbale building in a permaculture newsletter in 1988.
Soon, another well known strawbale pioneer, Matts Myhrman, co-author of “Build it with Bales” (USA, 1997), founded a strawbale information and education service called “Out on Bale” in Tucson, Arizona. In 1989, a strawbale building workshop in Arizona brought together David Bainbridge, Matts Myhrman, Bill Steen and Pliny Fisk, who were actively involved in the Centre for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas. They worked together on researching and exposing the best methods for bale building.
The early 1990s saw a dramatic increase in newspaper articles, television coverage, research activity and strawbale building workshops, as well as a widespread growth of interest for this newly discovered and sustainable alternative in the building industry. The first code approvals for a limited number of strawbale buildings coincided with this and the first permitted strawbale house was also the first insured and bank financed bale construction built in 1991 in New Mexico. The first international strawbale conference was held in 1993 in Nebraska (see article Where Bale Building Began). It was attended by architects, engineers, designers, builders and many enthusiasts from a diversity of backgrounds. Concluding the conference, a proposal was drafted to form a National Strawbale Research Advisory Network, in order to facilitate communication between key regional representatives of strawbale construction. This networking helped to conduct efficient, non-duplicative testing with common research directives and the best use of engineering and financial resources.
The revival of strawbale building originated in the USA. However, today we find strawbale building projects, workshops, research, literature and networks all over the world, including Australia. Council and code approvals for strawbale construction in Australia are currently given on an individual basis with recommendations, planning and construction supervision by architects and engineers.
Approximately 500 approved bale buildings have been erected in Australia over the last 15 years (1990 – 2005). and the number has greatly increased since. Buildings include residential houses and studios, garages, stables, meditation centres, wineries, a restaurant and a large timber workshop/joinery.
The first Australian book on strawbale buildings has been published by the Earth Garden Magazine Publication in 2000. It is called Strawbale Homebuilding, provides a great overview of what is baling in Australia and includes a comprehensive list of helpful contacts and further reading on the subject. As modern strawbale building is relatively young, each new project and personality adds to a collective knowledge & a warehouse of ideas and many possible improvements.
“The future of strawbale building is now being written”
Continuous growth of the human population places great stress on many of Earth’s ecological systems. The exploitation of resources is never sustainable, let alone equitable. As all our natural resources are affected by decades of exploitation and environmental concerns are constantly and rapidly increasing, a gradual return to the use of the natural and sustainable building materials of the past is inevitable. With today’s crucial emphasis on protecting our environment, building systems such as strawbale construction need to be considered as a valuable alternative to conventional systems.
It has been estimated that between 30 and 45 percent of all energy used, is consumed by the building industry. This includes the processing and transporting of building materials as well as constructing, operating and equipping our buildings. Up to one half of the planet’s most valuable resources such as water, timber and minerals are devoured by this large-scale industry.
Straw is an annually renewing & relative abundant natural material. In most grain producing regions; straw the long hollow stems of cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rice & barley is considered waste that is discarded, often by burning. Enormous quantities of straw are produced in Australia every year. More than half of it is burned, releasing thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and residue particles directly into the atmosphere. Most of the remaining straw is worked back into the soil, whereby it indirectly produces nitrous oxide emission, as nitrogen- replacement fertilizers are necessary when straw is ploughed under.
If only half of this wasted resource was used as building material approximately 30 percent of all new houses built in NSW each year could be constructed from this annually renewable, strong and natural material.
The decrease in the practice of burning straw, if it was used as building material by more builders and home owners, would cut back the production of carbon dioxide, which in turn would help control global warming and atmospheric deterioration. Less energy would be needed as straw is usually regionally available and requires little or no industrial processing thus, has very low embodied energy. The demand for less energy-efficient timbers would be reduced, since less wood is needed for most strawbale constructions. To turn an abundant waste product into a resource helps avoiding disposal costs and would help cereal growers to use their crops more efficiently.
Strawbale building provides us with a real choice to help reduce energy consumption when building our homes, places of work, education, play and healing. Make this choice today, for a cleaner, safer, healthier and better tomorrow.
“We do not inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children”
Photograph by Alastair McNaughton (Postcards by Desert Images, W.A.)