Strawbale fever

Strawbale building has gathered much interest from Farmer’s Weekly readers. Abre J Steyn answers a few more questions on the technology, and envisions a database through which readers can share their insights.

- Advertisement -

When you throw a stone
into a bush, it’s seldom possible to predict what the outcome will be. I remember when I was still involved in the film industry, how the producers would hold their breath before the box-office returns were announced. 

It wasn’t uncommon for a film to be a complete failure, irrespective of how many millions were spent, or how much effort was put into its production. It was always a gamble, as the public’s reaction could never be predicted.

It’s the same with the articles I write. Sometimes a subject draws hardly any response. At other times, I’m swamped by an avalanche of readers’ reactions, which was the case with the “Building with straw” article (24 September issue).

- Advertisement -

Although I knew it was a marvellous concept, writing about strawbale building wasn’t my own idea, but that of my colleague Chris Nel, who wrote an article about it in August 1995. But the editor at the time viewed it as a bad version of “The-three-little-pigs-and-the-big-bad-wolf” and trashed it. Its timing wasn’t right.

Since then, the environmental awareness of the South African farming community and public awareness of the need to live more sustainably has grown amazingly. With the threat of global warming upon us, many of us realise that we have to build structures that can better withstand the extremes of inevitable climate change.

Whichever way it goes, strawbale houses will be one of the best answers. It’s surely the way to build in the future. This story drew reaction, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. And the follow-up story, “Do-it-yourself strawbale building” (8 October issue), just fuelled the flames. If you missed either issue, phone Auriel Mitchley on 011 889 0796 for a back copy.

Straw building Q&A
When I wrote the first article, I didn’t know enough about the subject to answer the hundreds of questions I was inundated with. The most frequent questions were about possible problems with termites or mold/mildew developing in the straw, the type of foundation required, the building cost per square metre, and who could be contacted to do the building. Of course, the straw must be thoroughly dry, or else it’ll rot. Experience shows that if the bales are properly sealed off by plaster and damp-course, neither termites nor rodents are a problem. No special foundations are needed, although you do need to secure the bottom bales to the earth in one of the various available ways, like concrete-anchored wires.

The cost, which is substantially lower than that of conventional methods, will vary depending on the sophistication of the trimmings, who does the job, and transport distance of the straw. Straw cut and baled on site provides substantial savings. The photos opposite show an efficient home-made hand-baler. One published figure for a simple 7m x 10m cottage was as low as R18 500, but an extravagant mansion can cost hundreds of thousands.

Accurate estimates will only be possible once more projects are completed. Strawbale building is to some extent seasonal. Because the straw must be mature and totally dry, winter is the ideal building season, unless you’re in the Cape. Of course, you can build in summer if you build a non-load-bearing construction and first erect the roof, but be prepared to realise the risk of rain if you build the walls first.

Unless you can get your straw under-roof or get your structure up and plastered before the rain, it would be advisable to first do all your homework and wait until next winter, after the first frost.
You just have to manage the whole process in an organised and structured way.

Strawbale building in Africa
What’s being doing here is ground-breaking, but while a lot of information is available internationally, not necessarily all applies to African conditions. Although an unimaginable need and potential exists for this technology throughout our continent, we must still learn how to build with straw.

Anyone who has already used this method, as well as those who will do it in the near future, can consider themselves pioneers of a new chapter in African history. Many people who contacted me intend to build strawbale houses in the near future. Bob and Irma Goss, who lived in such a house in the UK, are among them. Their interesting plan is to top it with a turf roof and use double-glazed windows for total insulation.

A fascinating development is planned at Boschhoek Mountain Estate in the Waterberg near Modimolle/Nylstroom in Limpopo. This is a newly launched 1 438ha residential game reserve aimed at the middle-income market. Owners of the 142 full-title 1ha to 2ha stands will be encouraged to make use of natural building materials and methods such as straw bales to bring a bush-house in beautiful natural surroundings within everyone’s reach.

They plan to have a strawbale-specialising contractor on site for those unable to build for themselves. In the meantime he’ll be available for work elsewhere.

Strawbale building database
With Farmer’s Weekly leading the way, all information must be accumulated and stored in a database, as well as the contact details of all interested readers. So please send me an e-mail stating where you are, where and what you intend building, or have already built, what problems you encountered and tips on how you solved them, or even just where you saw such a building. Also, please send me some photographs (no smaller than 300MB).

With all e-mail addresses logged, I can update those on the list by bulk e-mail and, by compiling it periodically into a new story, create continued enthusiasm for a more sustainable future.