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Building a better castle from straw

by David Jonas

Imagine living in a house that was constructed from straw bales that were grown on your farm. Imagine a house that minimized as purchased energy needs and was designed to accommodate the forces of the sun, wind and water. Imagine a house that was inexpensive and didn't take 25 years to pay off a mortgage to a bank. Imagine a house that utilized appropriate tools and construction techniques so the owner could also be the builder. Sound like a dream? For Louis Gagné, a builder from Hull, Quebec, the desire for more ecological and economical home is turning these images into reality.

Straw Bale/Mortar Construction

With twenty years of experience exploring low-cost, ecological building systems, Gagné is no newcomer to building. His design of a wall system based on lime-treated straw bales, bonded and parged with lime containing mortar, has been met with both enthusiasm from scientists around the world as well as snickers from cynics reminding him of the nursery story of the three little pigs.

However, independent testing by the National Research Council as well as engineering firms reveal that Gagné's straw bale/mortar homes not only remain standing when nature huffs and puffs, but the straw bales actually improve fire resistance, structural strength, energy efficiency and are substantially less expensive than conventional stick frame construction.

The wall system resembles a cellular sandwich in which the mortar joints form the hollow frame and the straw bales with their mortarparged surfaces serve as filler. The only tools that are needed to build a straw bale/mortar home are shovels, a small cement mixer, a wheel barrow, some special forms for the mortar joints and two or three people who are not afraid to work hard. The building materials - sand, gravel, and straw- are readily available in most Rural areas, reducing the high cost and inefficient energy use associated with long distance transport.

More refinement

In 1986, two research reports, A Straw Bales/Mortar House Demonstration Project and A Feasibility Study of an Alternative Building Method in Native Communities, were written by Gagné and sponsored by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. In these reports, Gagné wrote that the straw bale and mortar wall involved "simple building operations, easily managed by non-skilled workers." Five years later, Gagné is still building and excited about straw bale/ mortar homes, but he now feels that the technology is more complex than he had first realized. He has seen inexperienced builders run into difficulties when they tried to build with straw bales but he believes that building with straw will be more accessible to inexperienced builders after a couple of more years of refining the straw-bale construction system.

You likely won't see straw-bale mortar homes, livestock barns and utility sheds popping up overnight! Growing your own building materials certainly is not for everyone, but Gagné's straw bale/mortar system is an example of what happens when creativity is mixed with a desire for a low-cost building system that utilizes Heal and renewable on farm resources.

Copyright © 1991 REAP Canada.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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