Living Green: Building homes using Straw Bale - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Living Green: Building homes using Straw Bale

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Straw Bales being dropped off at the Takaki's home Straw Bales being dropped off at the Takaki's home

Cle Elum, WA -  Building a home with straw bales is not the material that comes to mind when you think of home building, but this way of ecological building design allows for structures to be durable, sustainable, and provides a number of different benefits.  Living Shelter Design is one few design firms in the Pacific Northwest with expertise in Straw Bale Construction, the firm is currently working with a couple to help them build their dream home using this unique material.

Jeannine and Satoshi Takaki used to live in Seattle, but are currently in the process of building their retirement home in Cle Elum with the help of architect, Terry Phelan, founder of Living Shelter Design.  The 1,600 square foot home's exterior walls were constructed using Straw Bale.

"Oh it's very comfortable, no sound coming through the walls and good insulation," said Satoshi Takaki.

There are two types of common Straw Bale wall systems used for bales to build the structural system. Dry, dense bales are stacked like big bricks, and pinned with rebar or bamboo. The roof then rests on a wood plate system at the top of the wall, which is secured to the foundation. This type of load-bearing construction is often termed "Nebraska Style", due to its place of origin. The other method, is a simple frame of posts and beams that carry the structural load of the building, while the bales act as walls and insulation. The bales are stacked in the same way as the load-bearing option, but placed either inside, outside, or in between the posts. These are termed in-fill wall systems. They are usually easier to permit, since building officials are familiar with how a frame reacts to different loading conditions, and they can allow more design flexibility.

Straw bales offer insulation, over twice as much as a standard stick-framed house. Saving energy, which saves money and is environmentally friendly. They are also simple to build with, making them the perfect material for owner-builders and community groups. With a "barn-raising" type party, walls for a single-family home often will go up in one day. The thick walls create wide window sills, and are easy to carve into niches and curves. 

"They've got such a different feel to them, the thick walls allow the light to spill into the room differently and its actually much more rodent or pest resistant than a framed wall because a framed wall has all the cavities between the studs and even if insulation is put in there it can be dug through," said Terry Phelan.

Straw is a non-toxic, natural material meaning healthier indoor air. A house built with straw bales typically uses less lumber, reducing the impact on our forests. Straw is annually renewable and abundant wherever grain crops are grown, and is in fact often burned as a waste product. Baling the straw for construction can reduce air pollution, and provide local farmers with additional income.

Straw Bale homes are also more fire resistant than a typical framed house. Individual straws will burn, but a straw bale is so compressed, there is not enough oxygen for combustion. Straw also is high in silica content, causing the surface of the bale to char, and block the flame from reaching farther into the bale.

"I'm just really grateful to the construction crew because they really did a lot in weird conditions and with new building techniques and its turned out better than I could imagine," said Jeanine Takaki.

The Takaki's home is expected to be completed in May.

To learn more about Straw Bale Construction and Living Shelter Design, click here.

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