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Material Focus: Straw Bales

By Diana Budds

When it comes to ecologically minded building materials, straw bales are among the kindest (they involve repurposing waste material from the grain growing industry). And lest you fear the outcome of the Three Little Pigs fairy tale, rest assured that when done correctly straw bale homes are structurally sound. Beginning with the "Gotta Bale" story from our October 2012 issue, and ending with an off the grid Bluff, Utah, project, we've rounded up five modern homes constructed from straw.

With about two dozen straw-bale buildings on their résumé, David Arkin and Anni Tilt found a balance between passive design strategies and the latest in green technologies for this Santa Cruz, California, home. “Straw is basically a waste material,” says Tilt. “Farmers used to burn rice straw, but now they’re baling it up to sell, which takes tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.” It’s also a stellar source of insulation, both thermal and acoustic.

Green features abound inside the house as well. The residents, two professors from UC Santa Cruz, repurposed dorm furniture—beds, armoires, and desks—for their kids' rooms.

Photo by: Gabriela Hasbun

Though visible elements of green design are found throughout this Napa Valley residence—from the recycled-glass and concrete countertops to the energy-efficient appliances—the straw bales that are cleverly packed to make two-foot-thick walls are the architects' favorite solution.

Photo by: JD Peterson

Ever aware of context, architect Henry Siegel says of his house, “A lot of architects’ buildings look better on a pedestal than in context. Our design would look out of place on a pedestal—we placed it so it really fits its specific site.”

Photo by: JD Peterson

When Anders Stokholm asked his old friend Felix Jerusalem to design his family’s new home in Eschenz, a northern Swiss village on the Rhine River and Untersee Lake, the client and architect agreed that they didn’t want to disturb the ancient Roman artifacts buried in the property’s wet soil. But they did want something both modern and green. Except for its concrete core, the entire house is made from slabs of prefabricated, formaldehyde-free compressed straw.

Upstairs, gallery windows frame the Rhine River. A concrete core (visible on the left) houses the kitchen, the bathroom, and a mini wine cellar below.

Behind the this Colorado house's corrugated-metal and wide-plank facade, uncommon materials share a common story with the neighborhood: Of design decisions driven by a desire to keep the next generation—and the planet—healthy and safe. Out back, the paved patio serves as the family's main dining room. Though occasionally snow and cold keep them inside, family dinners can often be enjoyed outdoors.

Photo by: Dave Lauridsen

In the kitchen, a window over the stovetop lets daylight in, framing the front yard while keeping the neighboring house out of the picture.

Photo by: Dave Lauridsen

The straw bale Rosie Joe house was the first project built in the Navajo Nation by DesignBuildBLUFF, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of Utah’s College of Architecture + Planning, that architect Hank Louis directs with a group of first-year graduate students. Each year eight to ten students design a house for a Navajo family then spend a semester on the reservation constructing the house by hand. The houses must operate off the grid. The goal is for budgets not to exceed $30,000.

Photo by: Daniel Hennessy

The house includes a rammed-earth Trombe wall for temperature regulation, a south-facing wall all of found and gang-mulled windows whether wood, wood-clad, vinyl or aluminum, the ceiling and roof structure made entirely of recycled pallets, exterior walls of straw sandwiched by clear acrylic, interior walls clad with discarded road signs.Click here to read our previous Material Focus story on plywood.

Photo by: Daniel Hennessy

Source: Dwell, Oct.10, 2014

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