Straw: Ideal Building Material?

The Economist
writes that straw buildings may be making a comeback, even if use of the material breaks local building codes. Straw may be an ideal building material for some types of buildings– it can be embedded with other materials to create adobe or stucco. It’s a great insulator. It’s often a waste material so can be recycled for low-cost. Additionally, straw buildings are highly earthquake-resistent because the material is inherently flexible and absorbs seismic energy better than steel, brick or glass. 

In some areas, the benefits of using straw may not be realized because local building officials prevent its use. The Economist points to Californian officials who recently tried to dump heavy fines on Warren Brush, owner of a non-profit farm, for building straw-bale buildings on his property. “The problem is that California’s building codes make no provision for the use of straw. And Mr Brush has many defenders—among them several university scientists and David Eisenberg, the chairman of the United States’ Green Building Council’s code committee.”

Perhaps with all the support from the USGBC, more local officials will see the utility of making low-cost earthquake-resistant material widespread. The Economist writes that straw has beaten other materials in earthquake tests. “A year ago, a test conducted at the University of Nevada’s large-scale structures laboratory showed that straw-bale constructions could withstand twice the amount of ground motion recorded in the Northridge earthquake that hit Los Angeles in 1994.”

It’s the combination of materials that make straw buildings highly resilient. Straw building begin with a foundation of gravel contained in plastic bags covered with soil mortar. “The walls are made of tightly packed straw bales held together with bamboo pins and lined with fishing nets. These are then coated with a clay-based plaster. Aesthetically, the final product is similar to stucco or adobe.”

Complicated work can also be done with the material. One structural engineer was able to create a two-story, three bedroom house with the straw mix. Additionally, in areas where there aren’t rules against using straw, there’s been a growth in projects, including a new post office in suburban Albuquerque and a Quaker school in Maryland.

Read the article and an indepth article from on applying straw building material. See HOK’s LEED Gold straw bale building.

Also, check out a new book on Shigeru Ban’s Paper Architecture. Ban has also faced a range of permit challenges, but has created stable, sustainable large-scale buildings out of paper.

Image credit: HOK / Inhabitat

4 thoughts on “Straw: Ideal Building Material?

  1. Bob Gough 04/10/2010 / 10:25 am

    As I commented in The Economist, straw is not only “an ideal building material” for scientific and technological reasons, but it can provide the basis for building “SAFE Homes™” – Sustainable, Affordable, Future-proofed and Energy efficient – throughout America, and especially in the earthquake prone Third World. Think Pakistan, Haiti and Chile. But also think American Indian reservations beyond the few with successful gaming operations, where the chronic poverty, life expectancy and sub-standard housing conditions fall just behind those which the world is trying to address in rebuilding Haiti.

    Many American Indian reservations, where Tribes with up to 40,000 years of “green economies” in North America under their belts, are now plagued with a severe shortage of healthy, affordable housing, massive chronic unemployment and extremely young (median age under 19) and rapidly growing populations. These conditions mirror the plight of Third World communities right here in America, where four of the top 5 poorest counties in America are located in South Dakota, and include the Crow Creek, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud Indian reservations found in the heart of the wheat belt on the northern Great Plains.

    With a dire housing need for over a quarter of a million new homes in Indian Country generally, this natural building technology is ecologically appropriate but labor-intensive. The Indian word for that is “jobs”. This homegrown construction technology, invented in western Nebraska in the 1880s, can provide reservation based American Indian youth, who today suffer suicide rates 2.5 times the national average, with skilled and meaningful jobs for an entire generation in the building of ecologically compatible, quality homes that sequester atmospheric carbon, avoid burning coal, reduce energy bills, save water and better prepare rural communities to be more resilient in the face of the more frequent, record-setting weather extremes predicted under climate change and the “natural disasters” actually experienced again this past winter.

    The Intertribal Council On Utility Policy ( recognizes that living on an Indian reservation in the U.S. you are 10 times more likely not to have electricity than anywhere else in America. And if you do have electricity, it is likely to be predominately coal based and you are paying a far greater portion of your household income for it. Under these circumstances, a well-insulated, passive solar home, being “smart” without any more gadgetry than necessary, built with local labor from natural local materials, like straw bales and earth, can be the most intelligent active choice we can make for affordable passive sustainability and enhanced quality of life!

    Straw bale homes can help insulate vulnerable tribal communities throughout the drought stricken west from accelerating energy costs and the increasingly life-threatening weather extremes forecasted for the region. There may also be elegant applications of this technology in Alaska, where the Corps of Engineers has estimated that nearly 200 native villages, on the front line of global warming, will need to be relocated in the coming decade due to ongoing coastal and river erosion and the melting of ancient permafrost.

    Through the course of human history, the construction, maintenance and operation of our buildings have had the greatest energy related impact on our environment than all other human activities, including wars, water access and delivery and transportation infrastructure construction and use. The fine art of turning an agricultural waste product into a energy saving wall system can have widespread benefits for the world’s neediest grass-roots communities and the planet, from the ground up.

    All Hail Straw Bale, the Great All-American Insulator!

    Bob Gough, Secretary
    Rosebud, South Dakota

  2. Deborah Howe 04/14/2010 / 9:21 am

    This is a fascinating subject; I do wish, though, that the applicability of it to landscape architecture, rather than shelter-building architecture, was explored more fully.

  3. Pieter 06/01/2010 / 4:31 pm

    In response to what Bob wrote about the straw bales should be used by Native Americans he is correct. In fact there is a successful program being used right now on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Many houses are being built as single family homes using straw bale at affordable prices.

    As for Deborah’s post I wanted to mention that there are many landscape projects out there that include the use of straw bales mainly in the form of privacy walls around courtyards and backyards. Also small structures from shade structures and outdoor kitchens to seat walls and other small landscape features can be built with straw.

  4. Erwin Schwarzmüller 06/02/2015 / 10:10 am

    straw may be the best solution not only for refugees but also to cope climate change. With a simple house conventionally built, more than 500 tons CO2 are exhausted during the building process. Straw built houses save primary energy during building process, plus have the quality of storing 1.5 times CO2 as the weight of straw implemented. No extra effort for producing it aside from normal crop harvesting, plus an extraordinary life cycle behavior that fits to the cradle 2 cradle principle. Straw is the superior building matter of the future, if human beings want to have any.

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