When most of us hear the idea of a house made of straw, the first thing that comes to mind is the tale of the Three Little Pigs. But with straw now being recognised as the low carbon, low impact building material, it looks like it might take more than a huff and a puff to knock down this innovation in eco-friendly home design.
The primary reason that straw bales are attracting the attention of today's environmentally-conscious architects is that they are made from plant matter. Not only is plant matter sustainable, but it's also packed full of CO2 absorbed from the atmosphere. Burning or decomposing straw releases this CO2, but building with straw effectively locks in this carbon, sealing it inside the building potentially for centuries. By capturing carbon like this, new buildings could become a key part of our efforts to combat the proliferation of carbon in the atmosphere.
Another huge advantage of the straw bale over other recycled building materials is that straw doesn't require any processing. Recycled plastics and tyres have to go through complicated, expensive transformations before they are ready to be used, but straw can arrive fresh from the farm and be ready to go.
Straw bales have been used in building for centuries, though in the past straw was used not for its environmental effects, but because it was cheap and available. As soon as bricks became easy to manufacture in mass quantities, straw fell by the wayside. Over the last decade, architects have come to see straw as a potentially revolutionary way to lower the carbon footprint of new buildings, but until recently, the size and bulk of the bales has limited what can be built with them. Straw was only suitable for use in unconventional buildings which were designed around its limitations: straw bales are big and bulky, and homes built using them have, until now, been big and bulky too.
However, over the past 13 years, researchers from Bath University's Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering have been conducting tests and running a number of studies on straw, with the aim of developing a range of straw-based building materials which rival conventional bricks and mortar. The Bath team took on the limitations of the material, and, after years of development, last year they released the world's first straw panel onto the market. The panels allow almost any type of house to be built entirely from straw, and the concept has already been proven with seven new townhouses already been built in Bristol.
As a result of this development, architects are now free to design far more interesting and appealing straw buildings, and to bring this unusual building material to the forefront of efforts to create the ideal sustainable home. More and more new builds are incorporating straw bales and panels, so in the future, expect to see straw used as a selling point in house listings, as well as plenty of big bad wolves huffing and puffing in vain.