Clutching at straw

Aylmer couple builds a house to last - out of straw

The Ottawa Citizen, February 28 1998 – Karen Turner

Two years ago, Kirk Finken and Danielle Roy found themselves up against a brick wall when they tried to get approval from the city of Aylmer to build a house out of straw.

"It was quite a struggle," recalls Mr. Finken of their uphill battle to convince municipal officials, banks and insurance companies of the viability of straw-bale construction.

"Any time you want to do something different, there are people who don't want you to and want to stop you. It sounded a little too granola for them ... too experimental."

And there was no forgetting what had happened to the three little pigs when the Big Bad Wolf came calling.

Stacking 800 straw bales like giant building blocks and sheeting them with plaster raised red flags about the home's stability, strength and esthetics. As the main building support and insulation, how would the straw walls hold up over time?

Building inspectors were befuddled as to how they would monitor the construction of the 1 1/2-storey house with no certified standards to work from. And there were concerns about the unusual-shaped house being a neighbourhood eyesore.

Architect Linda Chapman of Fibre House Ltd., a company that specializes in straw-bale construction, admits it's difficult to imagine brittle straw being used as a durable building material. But she says when pre-compressed and sandwiched between thick 'skins" of stucco, the bales are actually stronger than conventional woodframed walls.

Tests by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) found straw walls are three to four times stronger than two-by-four wood construction:' says Ms. Chapman, who designed the Aylmer house and was involved in the CMHC testing.

Because the bales are so compacted, they also double the insulation value of the walls to R-40, compared to the standard R-20 rating, and are more fire resistant.

"Bales are usually tied so tight that there is not enough oxygen within the bale to support combustion," explains Robert Tom, a Kanata-based builder and designer who specializes in energy-efficient construction.

After six months of lobbying Aylmer Council, Mr. Finken, 34, and Ms. Roy, 42, finally got the go-ahead last summer to build their straw dream home. The municipal building permit bylaw was amended to allow straw as 'an experimental building material."

The next hurdle was getting an approved mortgage.

"I'm a big guy with a shaved head. I walk into a bank and already people are nervous," quips Mr. Finken. "And then I start talking about building with straw bales..."

Last August, construction of the 800-square-foot house began on a quiet street in the older section of Aylmer. Once home to a small cottagesize house, the deep lot had been cleared the previous summer after plans to renovate the original house fell through. Mr. Finken, a freelance writer, had spent many evenings and weekends taking the old house apart piece by piece, only to realize it was so ravaged by wood-gnawing bugs, it would have cost $60,000 to $70,000 just to bring it up to snuff."

That's when the couple set their sights on straw. Having visited friends in Papineauville, about 50 kilometres east of Hull, who lived in a straw house, they were intrigued by its design and construction.

"It was such a different style," recalls Mr. Finken, who spent months researching the housing technology. We liked the practicality of the whole thing."

Straw is not only a readily available Canadian commodity, but as a building material, it's much cheaper than lumber.

Mr. Tom says straw-bale homes can be built for as little as $20 a square foot, while conventional tract or custom housing costs anywhere from $70 to $100 a square foot.

"Current housing prices exclude many people from the home-buying market. Straw-bale construction provides an opportunity for people to create their own affordable, energy-efficient, healthy, sustainable shelter."

And building your own home, be it straw or wood, is somewhat romantic, right? Not if Mother Nature isn't on your side.

Ms. Chapman says rain is the biggest enemy when building with straw. Unlike lumber, the bales must be kept dry during construction, and that can get tricky during torrential summer storms.

Several times during the three-month construction project, the giant blue tarpaulins shielding the exposed straw walls like a circus tent were ripped away by high winds and pounding rain.

"It's a nightmare when it rains" says Ms. Roy, recalling the exhausting struggle to protect the bales from getting wet. "The rain is something you can't avoid."

Unlike some straw structures that are wood framed and the walls packed with straw for insulation, the Aylmer house is load-bearing, meaning the plastered bales carry all of the weight of the floor and roof without wood Supports. A Mansard-style roof with a wide overhang acts like an oversized rain hat to keep water off the grey stucco walls.

Because the straw bales are so thick, window sills are extra-deep like those found in early farmhouses, and the plaster walls are anything but square.

"There's a certain charm to the irregularity," says Mr. Finken "There's a sensuality to the walls that makes them almost sculptural."

Lumber, windows and even the kitchen sink were salvaged from the old house to help offset the costs of building the new straw structure. Originally expected to cost about $70,000, the three-bedroom topped $100,000.

Inside, there is no formal living room or dining area, but rather a large open-concept kitchen dominating the main leveL Broad panes of glass cut into the smooth, rounded walls keep the room warm and sunny, while a radiant heating system pumps hot water through pipes in the concrete slab floor. Instead of fishing electrical wires through the straw walls, the baseboards were boxed out for easier installation.

Old windows were used to face the tall, skinny kitchen cabinets, and wooden planks were recycled its panelling for the centre island and the staircase leading to the upper loft.

Daughters Anna, 2, and Coco Simone 7 bunk in the two bedrooms off the kitchen while their parents sleep upstairs under the high-pitched roof There was talk of adding dividing walls between the master bedroom and the TV room in the far corner of the loft, but the couple opted to leave the space open and rely on a beautiful wood-panelled screen for bedroom privacy.

To cut down on the amount of unnecessary stockpiling, the house was built without a basement. "We didn't want a basement," explains Ms Roy. "Everything you don't want to live with ends up in the basement."

Since the couple doesn't own a car, there is no attached garage either. Ms. Roy admits storage room is limited, but says there are plans to build a backyard shed.

When asked what it's like living in a straw house, the couple says the indoor air quality is a vast improvement over the dry apartments they've lived in over the years.

Since straw is a natural, non-toxic material, Mr. Tom says it offers a healthier living environment, with none of the air pollutants typically found in new homes.

"The adhesives, binding agents, solvents fungicides. etc. that are usually present in most conventionally built homes comprise a chemical stew... that has the potential to negatively affect the indoor air quality to the point of making some people ill."

Since moving into the house in November, little Anna has been breathing easier. The preschooler has asthma and is prone to attacks whenever she catches a cold, but her parents say she's been problem-free despite two bouts with the sniffles this winter.

"We've always aimed to live with a pollution and chemical-free lifestyle," says Mr Finken.

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