View from the hill – reflections on building the world’s first Miscanthus bale house.

Straw bale building in the UK has a history of artful and inspired design and has resulted in a small number of iconic buildings, and a much larger number of elegant and understated ones. However, whilst the built form and structural details vary, relatively little attention has been paid to what type of straw is used; the conventional choice in the UK is wheat and sometimes barley. Practitioners tend not to say that one straw type is better than another. It is also quite striking that discussions on choice of bale are almost always about buildability, density and moisture content, as opposed to the plant species it comes from or the implications for long term performance of the building.
But that’s all about to change.

What are the benefits of Miscanthus

In the early 2000’s, Miscanthus was flagged up as a potential bioenergy crop for Northern Europe, and Defra sent a team of Aberystwyth scientists to Asia to collect genetically distinct specimens that could be crossed with each other to create the ideal biomass crop. Effectively, the mission was to domesticate the crop by combining particular properties and produce a stable, high yielding crop that grows well in the UK and Europe. But why Miscanthus? Well to start with it has an extraordinary growth rate (some varieties grow a whopping 3-4 metres per year) and a woody hollow stem. For these reasons it is used in the EU almost entirely as a bioenergy crop, but the key property that makes it interesting for straw bale builders is that it is more resistant to biodegradation than other straw types.

Using miscanthus bales

As with wheat and barley, Miscanthus is typically baled in large square Hesston bales for ease of handling and transport. However in 2016, Aberystwyth University asked Terravesta (the UKs leading Miscanthus supply chain company) to produce some small square bales, with the specific intention of trialling their use in buildings. Following successful testing by Bee Rowan of Strawbuild on courses at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in 2016, the opportunity to use Miscanthus in a real self-build project arose in 2017, which is where the intrepid Steph Robinson takes over the story.
“There were some key considerations for my house build – I wanted a home with a small ecological footprint, I wanted to be able to build it with friends and I wanted a peaceful and healthy place to live. I saw the build tests by Bee, learnt about the research from Judith at Aberystwyth University and I enjoy spending time in straw bale buildings here at CAT which have such a relaxing quality to them due to the air and sound quality.”
The initial work on the strawbale wall element of the house was done via a CAT course. As is generally the case at the start of a straw bale building course, people are keen to get started, and there’s a certain degree of nervousness and excitement about how things will go. Added to this was some background nervousness about the use of Miscanthus itself. However, this proved unfounded; initial demonstrations by Bee Rowan and Hassan Mzali on the basic processes involved went smoothly and within an hour or so, course participants were confidently placing the first course of bales. By the end of the week, the building was beginning to take shape.

So, how well did Miscanthus bales work?

In most ways, using Miscanthus instead of wheat or barley was completely unremarkable. The bales weighed in at a fairly typical 18.3kg and had a low moisture content (10.7%). They were easy to straighten, cut down to size and dress, and notches were easily cut with an alligator saw. The general construction of the walls proceeded normally, and compression was undertaken without anything unusual happening. There were a couple of key differences compared to most straw bale builds, arising from the intrinsic properties of Miscanthus itself. The first is that it was too rigid to use to stuff gaps or make ‘rats’ for plastering; it has a stiff stem, that makes an audible snapping sound when you try and bend it, unlike wheat or barley which is easy to manipulate. This stiffness also meant that the bales were less pleasant to handle; definitely a case of long sleeves and trousers rather than shorts and T shirts. The third difference also related to stem durability; wall strimming prior to plastering needs a sharp blade operating at high speed (on this project a chainsaw worked well, with the alligator saw proving inadequate). The durability of Miscanthus is not surprising when we think about the biology; the plant has evolved to grow to a height of around 3 metres so needs to be stronger than a wheat or barley stem. The physical arrangement of cells in Miscanthus stems reflects this, and the chemical composition is also different, with Miscanthus having a higher lignin content than wheat straw.
Steph spent a further week finishing off the bale placement, compressing them, and then shaping them with an alligator saw around the openings. A long weekend followed with lots of volunteers to plaster the walls with clay which adhered well to the miscanthus.

 

The future for Miscanthus bales?

The main reasons straw bale builders have not used Miscanthus before are presumably unfamiliarity and unavailability. However, if it is indeed biologically superior in terms of its resistance to biodegradation, it is perhaps worth considering for future straw bale projects. It is slightly more difficult to build with, but if the performance is better, this is perhaps a small price to pay. So the last word goes to Steph

“It is comforting to know that the bales are far more resistant to composting than straw when you live somewhere as wet as Wales. The period of time it took to build with the bales was just a few weeks but hopefully the life of the building will be over 200 years.” – Judith Thornton and Steph Robinson

 

New year’s day fire at lammas

All of us at SBUK were devastated to hear of the fire that destroyed Simon and Jasmine Dale’s house in the Lammas Eco village on new years day.

The home was an inspirational house, being built for very little money and a lot of hard work from Simon and a whole league of volunteers. The house used exceptionally low impact materials including straw walls, sheep wool insulation, earth and lime plasters and earthen floors. Being featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs, the house stood as an example to thousands of what can be achieved.

 

Friends of Simon and Jasmine have set up a crowd-funding page for £50,000 to help rebuild. We urge you all to give a little if you can.

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/jane-wells-2

 

Straw bale house flammability myth

 

We were also annoyed to see The Telegraph misreporting the event with a classic straw bale myth – “

The house, situated in Lammas eco-village in Pembrokeshire, Wales, was built entirely of reclaimed materials, including glass and timber and insulated with sheep’s wool. But it was also constructed using straw, meaning the fire on January 1 ended up destroying the entire house.”

Jasmine Dale wrote to us saying:

“You’ll be pleased to know the straw and cob walls did not burn. Some stored reclaimed plastic stuff we intended to use under the earth floors downstairs as insulation ignited from a freak electrical fault nearby. The firemen actually knocked all the straw rendered walls down and raked them into the flames, a very strange experience, as they looked so intact!”

Straw bale buildings in Californian wild fires

This ties in with a report from the California straw bale association on the resilience of straw bale buildings during their extensive wildfires. This one example shows the whole house burned down EXCEPT the straw.

Full report here: https://www.strawbuilding.org/resources/Documents/Fire-ResistiveStrawbaleWalls.pdf

 

Video of official fire testing of straw bale wall

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjM0yXF7sy8

 

Big Straw Bale Gathering – Early Bird Tickets Now on Sale!

We are very pleased to announce the early bird tickets for The Big Straw Bale Gathering 2018 are on sale now. Get them early to take advantage of this discount price.

 

Tickets - Big Straw Bale Gathering 2018

SBUK are proud to present the inaugural ‘Big Straw Bale Gathering’ – a gathering to discuss and learn straw bale construction and share the latest and best thinking within the industry.

 

SBUK Presents: The Big Straw Bale Gathering 2018

Theme: Sowing the inspiration, growing the industry & harvesting the knowledge

 

Down To Earth – Swansea, UK – 10th,11th & 12th of August 2018:
SBUK are proud to present the inaugural ‘Big Straw Bale Gathering’ – a gathering to discuss and learn straw bale construction and share the latest and best thinking within the industry.


Held at Down To Earth’s beautiful strawbale roundhouse in South Wales. The weekend will feature talks, discussions and hands-on workshops, for all levels, led by the UK’s best natural builders and leading associated professionals. So come down and get excited about building with straw, learn some new techniques or get stuck into the geeky technical stuff.

When you are full of knowledge you can relax with great local organic food, music, dancing, yoga, ‘Strawbale Ale’, children’s activities and a host of extracurricular events ranging from walks to canyoneering on the beautiful Gower peninsular!

 

The Big Straw Bale Gathering will collect up everyone with an interest in straw bale building in the UK. No matter what level you are engaging with straw bale construction, there will be lots to learn at the BSBG.  Jeffrey Hart – Events Director – SBUK

The Big Straw Bale Gathering 2018

SBUK Presents: The Big Straw Bale Gathering 2018

Tickets on sale now from www.strawbalebuildinguk.com/store

Theme: Sowing the inspiration, growing the industry & harvesting the knowledge

 

Down To Earth – Swansea, UK – 10th,11th & 12th of August 2018:
SBUK are proud to present the inaugural ‘Big Straw Bale Gathering’ – a gathering to discuss and learn straw bale construction and share the latest and best thinking within the industry.


Held at Down To Earth’s beautiful strawbale roundhouse in South Wales. The weekend will feature talks, discussions and hands-on workshops, for all levels, led by the UK’s best natural builders and leading associated professionals. So come down and get excited about building with straw, learn some new techniques or get stuck into the geeky technical stuff.

 

When you are full of knowledge you can relax with great local organic food, music, dancing, yoga, ‘Strawbale Ale’, children’s activities and a host of extracurricular events ranging from walks to canyoneering on the beautiful Gower peninsular!

 

The Big Straw Bale Gathering will collect up everyone with an interest in straw bale building in the UK. No matter what level you are engaging with straw bale construction, there will be lots to learn at the BSBG.  Jeffrey Hart – Events Director – SBUK

 

Tickets on sale now from www.strawbalebuildinguk.com/store

StrawBale Building UK – SBUK – is a Community Benefit Society, formed in 2016 with the aim: To promote straw bale building and best practice within the sector.




SBUK Members meeting Friday 22nd September 2017 #strawbale #upstraw #construction

SBUK Members meeting

Date: Friday 22nd September 2017, 11am – 2pm

Venue: St Luke’s Church, Great Colmore Street, Lee Bank, B15 2AT

http://www.st-lukes-church-centre.org.uk/about-us/

SBUK Members meeting Friday 22nd September 2017 AGENDA

You are brilliant @ModCellTweet for flagging this

@ApprovedInsp @ArchitectsJrnal #strawbuilding #naturalbuild #earthbuilding

Forget the three little pigs: straw can be an effective building material | Architects Jou p1Forget the three little pigs: straw can be an effective building material | Opinion | Architects Jou

@EcoBuild_Now : Whose Regeneration Is It Anyway?

The complexities of housing on a large scale need to be redressed especially when the debate on inclusivity and construction materials are taken in wholeheartedly. Read our take of this discussion at EcoBuild 2017 and come and visit us at Stand F209 over the 3 days with Hartwyn – Natural Building, Straw Build, Straw Works, EBUKi, UK Hempcrete, Grain Architecture , Native Architects, and  Orchard Barns.

ASBP HEALTHY BUILDINGS CONFERENCE & EXPO 2017

Construction conferences in today’s economic climate are important not just in sorting the wheat from the chaff but in opening up the conversation.

One of our founder members asked the question about challenging the perception that the mainstream has about ‘natural building’: why not have “Lectures challenging the industry’s approach to embodied carbon, circular economy, sustainable construction, inhabitant health, ecological impact, moisture regulation?” It was as if the organisers of today’s conference was listening to his inner thoughts.

We heard bold statements from the likes of Ian Mawditt and he, like others demonstrated how one click out of the cycle of the system can throw health and wellbeing of an individual into a downward spiral of illness (see Slide 8).

Mark Allan of Saint Gobain pointed to how the narrative is evolving into bettering the outlook for ‘health and wellbeing’: feeding into it with better performing materials. Public sector funding might well need a higher level of accountability and private funding on a mass scale might well be frowned upon if delivered just to the privileged, however instead of looking upon these moments cynically perhaps we ought to joyously look at the bigger developments as a source of inspiration as the public sector tweaks its systems to lean this way. The debate of man-made materials versus natural materials will always cause consternation across the industry and as one delegate opined “the impact of widely sourced materials and its affect on the eco-system on the whole” as a point for debate one gets the feeling that a meeting of minds is no longer just a soundbite for empty, vacuous action.

One of the most heartfelt talks was from Amena Warner of Allergy UK. Despite dismissing myths of washing clothes at cooler temperatures the more pertinently topics centred on the initial designs of a school, workplace or home. We overlook the wider outcome to meet our  immediate, urgent needs and sadly pay for this in the long term.

The effort of this collective group of insightful minds will keep innovating and be always forward looking. Barbara Jones of Straw Works has persisted when others might previously have given up and her talk astounded the already converted about the wonderments of building with Straw Bale. The benefits of working with clay and earth building was not missed by those in the rom and at last outside the industry these aspects are beginning to bear fruit too. Roll on ASBP 2018!

ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2017. Early Birds last call!

A golden opportunity is available in constructing buildings, the healthy way.

Whether your interest is in the performance, sustainability, or functionality of a building there is something here for everyone. Many aspects will be covered under one roof and this conference appeals to the architects, self-builders, public building designers or those wanting to understand the benefits of low impact construction.

A 20% discount is available here. Closes tomorrow so get in quick!

ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2017 ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2017_2

Founder Memberships

I would like to invite you to make an initial payment to become a founder member of SBUK.  The cost of a founder membership has been set at £50 per individual.  In return for this payment you will receive your first year’s membership of SBUK and also be listed in perpetuity on the SBUK website as a founder member, along with a link to your company/website etc. if desired.  The future membership model is still yet to be decided.

The founder membership monies are vital to helping SBUK meet its setup and running costs for the first year.

If you would like to become a founder member, please visit the membership page.