Building with Straw Bales

Emma Postill | Monday, 30th November 2015
A guide to building your own home from straw bales with beautiful photos and added information on UK planning permissions and building regulations.
Author: Barbara Jones
Publisher: Permanent Publications
Publication year: 2015
RRP: £29.99

Barbara Jones, one of the UK’s foremost straw bale builders and teachers, compiles her 20 years wealth of experience into the go-to guide for building with straw bales, for use by architects and construction professionals, as well as self-builders.

This revised and updated edition includes three new chapters. Additional information on planning permission and building regulations for UK-based readers is available to download online. Best of all, full colour throughout brings to life the inspirational straw bale build projects pictured within.

This information-dense book is well laid out: easy to navigate and with plenty of white space, drawings and photographs giving the text room to breathe.

Initial chapters make the case for building with straw bale: its affordability, low environmental impact and the many ways it can be used. With a particular interest in straw bale’s potential for widespread use, I’m impressed to learn, in a chapter dedicated to ‘Affordable houses’, that in one year the UK generates enough straw to potentially build 640,000 standard 3-bedroomed houses, straw that would otherwise be ploughed back into the land. 

In February 2015, as reported in the national news, the first straw bale houses on the open market went on sale in Bristol, encouraging the transition of straw bale construction into mainstream conscious-ness and consideration. The pre-fabrication technique, developed by architectural firm, Modcell, ‘could help to meet housing demand in the UK sustainably’, and is one option described in ‘Building techniques explained’.

‘Understanding your bale’ and ‘Bale plans: designing with the bale in mind’ form a strong basis for the comprehensive construction chapters that follow, which are supported by explanatory illustrations, photographs, tables and technical details. As an appendix, 10 pages of plans and sections include a tried and tested, basic two-bedroom house that can be built for under £50,000. I loved discovering straw bale’s capacity to be used creatively and the fun involved in building with it, from curving a bale by means of lying it on its side over a log and jumping on it, to the addition of alcoves and niches, formed by carving out shapes in the straw before rendering with clay or lime, and ‘truth windows’, holes in the render revealing the straw beneath. 

There comes a risk with making avail-able to self-builders such an appealing, affordable and attainable building method without any formal qualification, in harming the credibility of straw bale through poor design and/or construction. Jones eliminates as much risk as possible, importantly issuing words of caution throughout, concluding with ‘ask yourself: “Do I have the knowledge, skills and support required to carry out my dreams?”’ 

Of course, the only truly comprehensive way to review this book would be to put into practice the techniques described. I hope one day I can vouch for it when building my own house! In the meantime, a friend and architectural designer specialising in natural building materials assures me her 2011 edition has been an indispensable reference guide.

Building with Straw Bales has taught me a lot about the technical aspects of straw bale construction, and inspired me with its beautiful results. It has also convinced me that building with natural materials creates a healthy conscience and a healthy building, essential factors towards a healthy occupant.

Emma Postill is an architecture graduate and publishing assistant at PM.

Further resources

Check out our full section of useful books on green building HERE

Earthships: sustainable & ethically designed buildings

Watch: Building a simple wood and cobwood roundhouse

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