12 December 1997

no chaff for barbara & her house of straw

You can huff and you can

puff but you wont blow

Barbara Joness straw

houses down, says

Tom Montgomery

Barbara Jones is the leading expert on straw bale construction in this country and looks set to revolutionise our attitudes to building techniques, especially in rural areas.

Straw bale structures are cheap, quick and easy to erect, warm in winter and cool in summer. Farmer Brian Stinchcombe, who runs sheep on a 20ha (50-acre) hill farm at Cwmdu, Brecon, in Wales, is already cosily inhabiting a bungalow of straw. He built it himself for £10,000, with voluntary help and advice, and says people would be silly not to follow his example. "All you need is a load of bales and away you go," he said.

It is not quite that straightforward, but Barbara is convinced that straw bale building will take off in this country. When she held a workshop in Ireland she was almost besieged by interested farmers. "I have not had any ridicule from the rural community," she said. "They understand the durability of straw and build simple shelters from it."

&#42 American idea

Houses, barns, outhouses, workshops, community buildings, almost anything you can think of can be built of straw. The idea comes from America where straw bale buildings, including churches, first went up at the turn of the century (especially in Nebraska, which was short of timber) and are still standing. Nearly 500 go up every year, at least half of them built by women as community ventures.

Barbara put up her first straw structure in 1994 on a self-financed trip to California, where she built a studio as part of her studies. The following year a Churchill Fellowship enabled her to tour America and Canada to look at the technique in more depth.

She has 15 years experience as a builder and runs her own all-women roofing firm, Ama-zon Nails, in Todmorden, West

You can huff and you can

puff but you wont blow

Barbara Joness straw

houses down, says

Tom Montgomery

Barbara Jones is the leading expert on straw bale construction in this country and looks set to revolutionise our attitudes to building techniques, especially in rural areas.

Straw bale structures are cheap, quick and easy to erect, warm in winter and cool in summer. Farmer Brian Stinchcombe, who runs sheep on a 20ha (50-acre) hill farm at Cwmdu, Brecon, in Wales, is already cosily inhabiting a bungalow of straw. He built it himself for £10,000, with voluntary help and advice, and says people would be silly not to follow his example. "All you need is a load of bales and away you go," he said.

It is not quite that straightforward, but Barbara is convinced that straw bale building will take off in this country. When she held a workshop in Ireland she was almost besieged by interested farmers. "I have not had any ridicule from the rural community," she said. "They understand the durability of straw and build simple shelters from it."

&#42 American idea

Houses, barns, outhouses, workshops, community buildings, almost anything you can think of can be built of straw. The idea comes from America where straw bale buildings, including churches, first went up at the turn of the century (especially in Nebraska, which was short of timber) and are still standing. Nearly 500 go up every year, at least half of them built by women as community ventures.

Barbara put up her first straw structure in 1994 on a self-financed trip to California, where she built a studio as part of her studies. The following year a Churchill Fellowship enabled her to tour America and Canada to look at the technique in more depth.

She has 15 years experience as a builder and runs her own all-women roofing firm, Ama-zon Nails, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. Straw structures she has built on this side of the Atlantic include a circular, two-storey house with thatched roof in the Republic of Ireland.

She fields questions about fire risk with the stock answer that trying to burn a tightly-packed bale of straw is like attempting to set fire to a phone directory. Individual pages will combust but not the whole book. Straw houses are possibly less of a fire hazard than timber-framed ones, she reckons.

Enthusiasts for this type of building point out that straw is a waste product with insulation properties three times greater than brick or glass fibre. It can be adapted for a wide variety of buildings and with a bale costing about £1.50 it is inexpensive. You only need 200 to build the outer walls of a small house.

Jokes about living in a haystack are shrugged off by Barbara. She has heard them all before. To her, straw buildings are a serious proposition and not an excuse to set up cheap, rural squats. But she concedes that many are sceptical until they attend one of her talks illustrated with slides and videos.

"An ambassador lives in one in Quebec and there are some high-tech straw bale buildings in America millionaires would envy," she says.

One common method of building is where a wooden framework supports the weight of the roof and the bales are used to fill in between. Another requires bales to be stacked in vertical columns so the cement mortar holding them together forms posts between each stack.

But the simplest method, which takes its name from Nebraska, is, according to Barbara, "the most fun way of building and requires little previous knowledge".

The bales, placed together like giant building blocks, are pinned to each other and anchored down. They take the weight of the roof which is also fastened to the foundations.

Before building your own structure Barbara advises first finding out bale dimensions because they can vary a lot. Your final plan should show any openings at least half-a-bales length from corners. Doors and windows are fitted into load-bearing wooden frameworks with gaps left above to allow for settlement.

&#42 Concrete or rubble

Foundations can be concrete or rubble surmounted by a beam or plinth wall. This allows the straw to sit 6-8in off the ground to protect the bottom bales from damp and splash back. Niches, alcoves and channels are cut out for electricity and plumbing and once the roof is on and settlement has ceased, usually after six weeks, the building can be rendered outside and plastered inside, preferably with lime-based materials.

"One of the biggest attributes of straw bale is its capacity for creative fun and the ability it gives you to design and build the sort of space and shape you would really like," says Barbara.

"It lends itself to curves and circles and deep window seats due to the thickness of the bales. It is also a very forgiving material, can be knocked back into shape fairly easily and does not require absolute precision. The buildings feel different inside from brick and stone, cosy and warm and pleasing to the eye.

"Building with bales is a simple process you can do with a group of friends once they understand the basics."

This year the Ecology Building Society is expected to grant a mortgage for a two-storey, straw-built house in Leeds, for which outline planning permission has been approved, once the problem of valuation has been overcome. At the moment because there is no precedent or comparison straw bale houses are considered to have no value.

But it could be easier to find a needle buried inside one than get it past building regulations. They may not catch fire or be blown down but will they meet with official approval? Brian Stinchcombe has had problems with Brecon Beacons National Parks planning officers in Wales, but now has permission for the property to stay because of its environmental importance. Barbara admits that, though straw houses could help meet the demand for affordable rural housing, there is still a mountain to climb.

"The big question is how straw bales will respond to our climate," said Barbara. "One or two planning officers ridicule it but the majority are interested." Starting next year it will be subject to a two-year testing programme to determine durability, load bearing capabilities, fire resistance and insulation properties as a building material.

"If it gets the all-clear it will be a big leap for us," says Barbara. "I am confident it will because it has met all the standards in the United States."

Barbara designs straw bale buildings, draws up plans and can even help with construction, teaching on site. She also lectures and has most of the available literature. Her workshops are held from time to time in various parts of the country.

For details send an sae to Barbara Jones, 554 Burnley Road, Todmorden, West York-shire OL14 8JF. Information packs cost £1.

Barbara Jones (left) is convinced that straw bale building will take off in this country. Below: Work in progress on a farm bungalow in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Above: A straw bale building in California USA where a studio is under construction. Below: A rendered straw bale building in Quebec, Canada.