Huffing and puffing won't blow this house down

Photo: Martin Liefhebber
A house made of straw brings green building and energy savings to the suburbs.Everyone is looking to save energy and decrease their environmental footprint. Green-minded homeowners wanting sustainable building materials are looking at the straw bale home. Conceived in Nebraska about a century ago, straw bale houses offer good insulation with a material that is cheap and easily produced. Yet despite its environmental friendliness building with straw can be a challenge in areas where little is known about the technique. When three single women in Mississauga, Ontario wanted to build a straw bale house that was toxin-free, energy efficient and suited to community living, they ran headlong into municipal red tape. "The city did not understand the house and did all it could to block its construction," said Cheryl Bradbee, one of the home's residents. "We finally had to appeal to the province for a building permit for the straw in an unprecedented two hearings with the longest ruling ever in the history of the Ontario Building Code Commission." The women enlisted Martin Lieffheber of Breathe Architects of Toronto, a firm that specializes in green building. Construction of the 5,000-square-foot home began in 1999 and ended in January 2003, the culmination of years of planning, decision-making and struggles with the city. One of the problems is that for many municipalities, (including Mississauga), straw has not been written into the building code. The most contentious issue is that it is impossible to construct a moisture barrier on a straw bale wall, a requirement in many cities. "We had to go to the provincial body to prove that a straw bale wall without a moisture barrier was as good as a regular wall with one. Actually, moisture barriers have been implicated in lawsuits in the U.S. for causing mould in houses and consequently, related health problems," said Bradbee. Ironically, the women chose straw because of a health problem. One of the residents suffered from multiple chemical sensitivities and needed a home free of toxic materials such as broadloom, toxic paints and dry wall. Straw is an excellent insulator, keeping a house cooler in summer and warmer in winter, all without having to use toxic fibreglass and plaster. Straw houses provide walls that not only keep the air clean but also cut down on energy costs. The footprint of the house was further reduced by installing solar panels on the sloping roof using Uni-solar strips that draw energy when partially covered by shade. These solar strips supply 33 percent of the energy needs. During the winter, several wood-burning fireplaces help heat each of the three separate suites and common living area, and a natural gas furnace kicks in to make up the difference. No central air conditioning means fewer energy needs during the sweltering summer months. Shade-giving trees, slanted ceilings, and double- and triple-paned windows also help keep the house cool. A garden with native species, some rare and endangered, was the finishing touch. "Every adult generation has one task and that is to ensure that the next generation has an opportunity to survive and reproduce," said Bradbee. "The issue of the house isn't its particular building material though the straw does its job and does it well. The house is about caring for creation and for one another, especially the next generation." Amy MacLachlan is a staff writer for The Presbyterian Record.