If the idea of building a straw bale house makes you think of the story of the Three Little Pigs and laugh, make sure you know the final chapter:
Alice was the daughter of the Third Little Pig, the famous one who built the brick house that the wolf couldn’t blow down. Due to her father’s success with wolf-proof brick, everyone in Alice’s community wanted a brick house, and so her father became a professional brick house builder. They mined the nearby hills for minerals to make the cement mortar and chopped down a lot of trees to fuel the kilns to cook the bricks. Eventually, everyone had a sturdy brick house but they wondered why the streams were dirty and the air was thick and gray.
Alice’s family’s brick house was the finest in the town. It was extremely wolf-proof and handsome. But she noticed that it took a lot of firewood to warm her house in the winter, and that it was uncomfortably hot in the summer. It was damp when the air was damp and dry when the air was dry. When she was old enough to build her own house, there were very few trees left and the cost of cement and brick was high.
So she looked around for a better way of building, one that the wolf still couldn’t blow down but that didn’t involve so much mining and burning. She saw that the farmers had lots of straw bales left over from growing wheat, and started to wonder. Alice imagined what fun it would be to just stack up all those bales and put a roof on and have a house! She told her father her idea and he laughed gently. “Why would you want to do that when you could build a fine brick house?” he asked.
But Alice was not deterred. She asked the farmer if he needed all those bales and he said he would be more than happy to part with them because they were of little use. He said that he even sometimes had to burn the extra straw to get rid of it, which he didn’t like to do because it made the air thick and black for days.
She did some research and found that there were a few historic examples of building with bales. The American pioneer settlers on the plains of Nebraska had very few trees or even rocks with which to build shelter. They did have horse-powered baling machines and a lot of grass, so they did what they could and made shelters out of bales of hay. These buildings were meant to be temporary, just to get them through the winter, but some were so functional that they became permanent. She was amazed to find that some had survived for over a hundred years!
While doing this research, she heard about a few modern pioneers living out in the desert who had been experimenting with building with bales. So she went and visited them. She stayed in a straw bale house and fell in love with the not-flat, not-square coziness of it. She helped them build more buildings and in return they were generous with their knowledge and experience and she learned a great deal. She learned it was not quite as simple as just stacking up the bales: that straw bale houses need a good foundation and a good roof and that she needed to know about all of the other complicated systems, like plumbing and electricity, that go into building any house.
She came back to her hometown full of inspiration and confidence. She bought a little piece of land near her father’s house and told him she planned to build her own straw bale house. He smiled and wished her luck but told her that, for professional liability reasons, he couldn’t help her with her project.
At first, she would go to her piece of land and just sit and watch. She watched how the sun moved across it and noticed where the wind came from. Once she knew her land, she planned a house that fit with the sun and the wind and the land and she began to build. When the word got out about her project, the neighbors began dropping by with questions.
“Won’t the horses and goats try to eat it?” a neighbor asked.
“That’s the difference between hay and straw: hay still has seeds but straw is just the stem of the plant. There will be nothing for them to eat in my walls,” Alice said as she began to dig for the foundation.
“What if the wolf tries to burn it down?” another neighbor asked.
“The plaster doesn’t let the air or the fire get to the bales, which makes it very fire safe,” she replied, as she built the sturdy frame for her house. “And even if the fire somehow got through the plaster, the bales are dense like a phone book and do not burn well.”
“It’s just straw, won’t it rot and fall apart like the straw bale I left in my garden last year?” asked a friend.
“Almost anything will rot if you don’t protect it. I will give it a good roof with wide overhangs and a thick coat of plaster and then it will not rot,” she said while framing the roof.
“Won’t mice crawl into your walls to make nests like they do in the stacks of bales in the barn?” asked the farmer.
“They are such nice, dense bales you made and I am stacking them so tightly together that there won’t be any space for a mouse’s nest,” she said while she waterproofed her roof.
When she had finished building the sturdy foundation and frame, and finished the roof so she would have a dry place to work, she went out to the farm and picked the nicest, driest bales.
She cut the bales carefully to fit snugly around the frame. She cut channels into the straw and ran the electrical cables. She filled the channels and any small holes with cob, a mix made of the clay she found while digging the foundation and straw leftover from cutting bales. Then she mixed up a big batch of clay plaster and plastered the bale walls inside and out.
The house she made was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In the winter, the low sun kissed her windows and warmed the floor and walls of the house. When she built a small fire in her fireplace, it quickly warmed the whole house and the thick, snug walls held in the precious heat.
In summer, she could open her windows and collect the cool evening breeze, then close the windows and keep that coolness through the next day. The hot, high summer sun couldn’t reach under the wide roof overhangs, leaving her house in cool shade.
The clay on the walls breathed in extra moisture, making the humid days less humid and exhaled the moisture back out on dry winter days. She loved her new straw bale house and how little mining and burning had gone into it.
One by one, her neighbors began to see what she loved about her house and wondered if someday they might have one of their own. And one day, her father asked her if she would help his company begin to build straw bale houses and she happily agreed. “But how about we rename the company Alice & Father Builders?” she suggested with a twinkle in her eye.