Approaching sustainability requires longevity: we take care of things we love and the longer something lasts, the lower its environmental impact. Unloved buildings get knocked down; then there’s additional environmental cost to build new ones.
There’s no longevity without durability. Most conventional buildings are built to last 30 or 40 years. Compare this to straw bale structures built in the late 1890s that are still in use today.
Straw bale building owners care about their buildings because they’re charismatic. As soon as you start putting straw bales into a wall, people notice. People also notice a difference when they enter a straw bale home. Perhaps it’s the thick walls that offer a sense of security, or the hand-applied finishes that harken to a time when buildings were crafted, instead of manufactured.
Straw bale buildings invite participation. Because the materials are nontoxic, there is a tradition of getting friends and family involved in the process with work parties—days when volunteers come to help stack bales or plaster walls, not unlike an Amish barn raising. Work parties don’t make sense on every project, but can advance the construction process while engaging the community. Most people feel alienated from construction, and working on your own building is empowering: a foot in the door to further engagement. This leads to a feeling of commitment and stewardship for the building, which can lead to greater longevity.
Of course, straw bale is just the wall. For a truly healthy, high-performance building, attention must be paid to the rest of the building system, such as minimizing its overall size and its loads; incorporating renewable energy systems; selecting high-performance HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems; and choosing nontoxic finishes throughout the building. With straw bale’s Appendix S added to the International Residential Code in 2015, and the California Straw Building Association’s (CASBA, strawbuilding.org) Detail Book soon to be published, this form of building will receive the acceptance and recognition it deserves.
See a load-bearing shake-table test at youtube.com/watch?v=x8Uz-2PonEk