REVIEW OF STRAWBALE HOMEBUILDING
edited by Alan Gray

Published by Earth Garden Magazine
www.earthgarden.com.au
RRP $Au19.95 including GST
ISBN 0 9586397-4-4

   Having never built with straw bales, I was keen to see what I would get out of this little, attractively presented book. The short answer is: mountains of inspiration. I am now ready to build a house at the drop of a straw hat, a straw house at the drop of a hat, whatever.

   The book starts with a punch: John Glassford and Susan Wingate-Pearse tell us on page 2: "Forty-five percent of all the energy consumed in the world is used in the manufacturing and transportation of building and construction materials." I didn't know that the brick was nastier than the car.

   Straw is a major waste product of agriculture, and millions of tonnes are burnt each year. You can turn bad into good and do yourself a favour at the same time by making some or all of your walls of straw.

   The book is a collection of stories from many contributors: owner-builders who did everything themselves, happy owners who might have helped the builder, professional builders, architects and engineers who have branched into strawbale, and Alan himself. There is a genuineness and immediacy about the many first-person reports by Australians who had DONE IT: built their own straw house. Almost every page shows a photo. Like the houses, the stories are unique, and yet with common features. The houses are all built with straw bales (surprise!), with all the strengths and limitations imposed by the medium, but everything else about them reflects the creative touch of individuality that blesses the pioneer. The stories vary greatly in length, lucidity and informativeness, but all are full of charm, enthusiasm and inspiration. These people take the reader with them on their journey of exploration, growth and achievement. Many of them were complete novice builders, proving the ease and practicability of strawbale building.

   I loved the dozens of little snippets like Josephine James telling us how her render passed the 'kick test' by the engineer, who told her that a brick veneer wall would be broken by the same insult.

   The opening section by John Glassford and Susan Wingate-Pearse is a gem, a miniature masterpiece. In just three pages, they informed me of facts I didn't know after thirty years in the environmental movement, inspired me and reassured me concerning reservations I might have had about straw bales as a building material. A few of the advantages are worth repeating, again and again: the aesthetic look, feel and sound of a strawbale house with its subtle curves; ease of construction, allowing the crassest beginner to construct at least the walls of a house; the immense thermal insulation provided by the thick straw walls; sustainability (straw is grown in less than a year compared to a minimum of thirty years for a pine tree); and the locking up of a source of air pollution because the straw in the house didn't have to be burnt or left to rot on the ground.

   I happen to know that the making of one house brick generates 1 Kg of carbon dioxide. Burning one tonne of straw generates the same amount of CO-2 as burning one tonne of wood. Imagine the environmental benefits of a strawbale city!

   I had a number of reservations about strawbale, but most of them were dispelled by this book. I learnt that termites are not a serious danger. Research shows that strawbales are not easy to set on fire, so that a bushfire should do no more than singe the outside. Stability can be a problem, but several standard solutions were described. The bales must be kept dry to eliminate the risk of rot, and I am still to be convinced that a mud render will provide sufficient protection over time.

   Although there is a short collection of 'how to' articles at the back, this book is not a systematic instruction manual on strawbale building. An already competent builder could extract enough information from it to get started and build a few small structures to learn on, but I had hoped for more.

   Apart from this, Strawbale Homebuilding is everything an environmental book should be. Given its low cost, it should be read by every Australian in the building trades and professions, and everyone considering a new house. The book shows that strawbale is a suitable material for huge factories and halls, tiny chook sheds, mountain mansions and suburban homes. There is nowhere in Australia where straw would not fit in.

   So what are you waiting for? Get the book and start building!

 

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