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Objections to straw bale construction: shipping bales  RSS feed

 
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Let us consider the shipping issue:

Compare: A conventional house requires hauling the wood. Often that wood has been hauled several times: Forest to mill. Mill to distributor. Distributor to job site. Straw would usually go from farm to site.

However there is more (weight) of straw than there is wood, I think.

The cost of transport isn't that great. When I buy compost, I typically am paying $400 to haul it 140 km for a walking trailer load (30 Tonne) So that's about 10 cents per tonne/km 30 T of bales at 20 kg each would be 1500 bales, roughly enough for 4000 square feet of wall.

When I bought wheat straw bales for a project it was $800 for 500 bales delivered locally. That was 10 years ago.

I'm currently paying $3/bale for flax, and $1 for delivery from about 100 km away in loads of 200 bales.


***

Waste product:

Hold off there: Here straw is getting good prices (about 1/3 to 2/5 the price of hay)

A: Bedding.

B: Supplemental feed. Cows won't gain weight on pure straw, but they can get calories out of it. Here a mix of grain and straw is often used in winter. Or straw is used as an ingredient mixed with silage, either after the silage is made, or shredded and put in the pit at the start.

C: Fuel
 
pollinator
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Location: Salt Lake Valley, Utah, hardiness zone 6b/7a
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One of the points with sustainable architecture is to use materials that are local, inexpensive, and appropriate for the location. Often we become enamored with a particular material or design and want to go out and build it, or build with it, and often, that material or design is inappropriate for the location we want to build on (perhaps it is a cultural penchant for building follies?).

In my area, straw became immediately inappropriate as soon as the first dozen straw bale homes went up (thirty or forty years ago) and farmers saw there was a market (same thing happened with log homes and foam blocks). Now, it is even more complicated by the reduction in availability of small balers (straw bales for building are becoming a specialty item) and advancements in utilization of straw as feed or fuel. Additionally, a lot (most) of the farm acreage has been built over around here in the past forty years. Deals can still be found, especially if friends, neighbors or family are in the equation.
 
pollinator
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Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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Andrew Parker wrote:One of the points with sustainable architecture is to use materials that are local, inexpensive, and appropriate for the location. Often we become enamored with a particular material or design and want to go out and build it, or build with it, and often, that material or design is inappropriate for the location we want to build on (perhaps it is a cultural penchant for building follies?).

In my area, straw became immediately inappropriate as soon as the first dozen straw bale homes went up (thirty or forty years ago) and farmers saw there was a market (same thing happened with log homes and foam blocks). Now, it is even more complicated by the reduction in availability of small balers (straw bales for building are becoming a specialty item) and advancements in utilization of straw as feed or fuel. Additionally, a lot (most) of the farm acreage has been built over around here in the past forty years. Deals can still be found, especially if friends, neighbors or family are in the equation.



For sure, one should never become so enamored with any particular technique that one ignores how well that technique applies to the site in question (among other qualifying factors). That is a lesson central to all of permaculture; not just green building. If there are no suitable straw bales to be had for cheap and within a max couple hours drive, then definitely choose another material. When I began this thread, I never meant to suggest otherwise; I was just surprised how many people in the continental US might actually find themselves in that situation. Seems to me it wouldn't be that many, and that therefore the straw bale critics were harping on a moot point.

I also acknowledge the many posters who have pointed out that grain grown in a more ecologically-oriented way doesn't necessarily produce that much excess straw, and that we should shift the primary focus of our subsistence away from grains in the first place. As I've written, the sooner our grain production is both reduced in scale and transformed entirely into small-scale, Fukuoka-style, preferably non-subsidized plots, the happier I will be. But that simply is not yet the reality, and in the meantime there remains, at least in my area, an awful lot of excess straw being sold cheap. Clearly much more than is needed to bed animals alone, since all the farmers still maintain large lofts full of stacked bales awaiting customers.

I would like to introduce another point, however, which is one of which I wasn't aware when I started my own straw bale construction (or when I started this thread). While it is certainly a good practice to choose building materials that are low impact, I think a lot of natural materials builders - including the authors of the straw bale and other books that guided me during my design process - are TOO hung up on embodied energy. I have since become aware that energy analysts believe that only a small portion - I have read different estimates, but some are in the single digits! - of the energy consumption represented by a building is actually embodied in its materials. The rest is lifetime operation and maintenance. If then a large majority, perhaps over 90%, of the energy is consumed in using a building over its lifetime, rather than in its construction, I think quibbling over materials is misplaced. It then follows that a structure with the lowest costs for "the big four" - heating air, heating water, cooling air, and drying clothes - plus the longest expected lifetime is the most desirable, and one shouldn't get too upset over the materials.

A well-designed passive solar straw bale home with a clothes line, a rocket mass heater, ceiling fans instead of A/C, and a solar water heater (i.e. like my own) will certainly meet these criteria. I will use next-to-no energy to heat, or to cool, or to dry clothes, and at most 50% energy to make hot water. And with proper maintenance, assuming I've done a good job as designer and builder, it should last for centuries. The oldest straw bale structure in the world is now over a century and still going strong; nearly double the lifespan of the modern mass-produced home. With this perspective in mind, I would probably have gone ahead with my design even if I'd had to ship in bales from a few hundred miles, rather than a mere dozen.

Of course, this perspective can also be used to argue against straw bale walls, too. If one doesn't particularly value the other virtues of straw bale architecture - aesthetic appeal, fire resistance, sound proofing, more $ into the local labor market vs the continental mass-market construction materials industry, lends itself nicely to high-air-quality living, etc. - or if one simply cannot commit the years to being one's own owner/builder/architect, then one might argue that a super-insulated passive solar home using conventional materials and techniques with the same features is nearly as good and a whole lot easier to achieve. Assuming that one could produce a structure good for centuries using those techniques, I would agree and be perfectly happy that more people are investing in smarter/better homes.

There are only two caveats, as I see it. First, most conventional builders will not deliver the same quality and features unless you educate them; they simply wouldn't know how. So you will still have to be fairly intimately involved in the design process to be sure you get what you want, not to mention hire specialists to build your rocket mass heater and such. Second, even if you pay for top quality construction and ensure the right detailing and the smartest design, will a conventionally-built home last for centuries? I just don't know. Seems like it could, but we have as yet few examples to point to. As it is, all but the most expensive conventional homes are expected to fall down or be bull-dozed in 60 years, even by the people who build them! I've certainly rarely seen an older home that was still in good shape. Does it have to be that way? And to do them better, would it cost so much more that one starts to look back to alternative/natural materials construction instead?
 
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Matthew,

Thought provoking write-up.

Some questions:

Where are you getting any field data that shows the life expectancy of strawbale construction to include all maintenance records to date of any build you say is "still standing" over decades? Have you monitored these buildings to prove they last longer than mainstream builds since I have found no data? We have a new effort by many nations to start monitoring but, some mandatory, but no quantified data I can find to justify SB or any earth construction method as superior a design criteria? BIMS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_information_modeling.


You said above that you have determined that strawbale produces healthy buildings, no rot in the walls nor IAQ issues.....I presume. Where is the supporting data since I am positive it can be one of the worse construction methods out there along with many earth construction methods, depending or whom and how it was executed. Much a result of a lack or monitoring or testing requirements the site manufactured "natural DIYs" procurement are not verified to what manufactured products are. Without the ASTM testing as a start it is impossible to verify results, yielding lots of unknowns and VERY limited empirical data in the "natural building" trades. The most I have seen by John Strobes, PHD, on SB, if one did not know and follow more than likely wrong or, SB 2015 IRC Appendix S or R. Lots of books, people wanting to make money on, with no real life cycle data.

If you are a self proclaimed DIY Architect and builder, you need to include any and all time cost spent on the learning curve in your cost analysis since the best in the world, or even the average, did not just decide to be one one day, build a one off and call it better than all. In most cases, the DIY should have hired a pro. For example, I am a thirty year aircraft bachelor degreed design engineer and I still struggle with the best designs in the world. Most jurisdictions require it in part due to deaths and for many other good reasons. Add at least $7/SF for pro Engineering services to equate to mainstream. If you cannot be hired at that, you are probably doing something wrong, just do not have massive design experience to market......When you sell a few hundred in a very competitive market, pay the errors and omissions insurance, take the liability in court from bad designs, etc, you will put value to your time and skills.

Also, some builders only have certain trades that can perform certain labor, the bigger cost is labor not materials. After around 10 takes offs you start to realize that as a building design pro. Cost and time is everything! Add labor intensive time into the equation properly you may have spent far more for more junk, knowing what you don't, than a mainstream purchase or builder designer.

Anyway, I be interested in seeing the floor plan and model, drawing's you produced?
 
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Matthew Nistico wrote:why would anyone desire to ship bales across the country to build a straw bale home?



As many others said, it can be a question of availability. Where I am near Moab, Utah, the nearest straw is over in Grand Junction Colorado, 90 miles away. There are two growers who bale for building straw. These 2-string bales are only $3.25 at the farm, but shipping them those 90 miles more than doubles the price, up to $7.
 
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