Well, it went viral that the pig’s house of straw was blown down by a big, bad wolf.
First problem with this tale is that wolves aren’t that big, and they are not that bad, so we have to question whether a wolf can blow anything down.
Point in case: The fact is we have houses made of straw today that are more than 100 years old.
“The first straw bale house was built on the plains. They didn’t have wood, so they used the straw,” said Sarah Robbins, who is having a straw bale house constructed north of Bayside along Copano Bay.
“Houses more than 100 years old are in Nebraska and Wyoming. They used wallpaper right on the straw,” Robbins said.
Robbins said straw was used until settlers imported wood to the area, but the straw proved to be great insulation. It kept people warm in the winter and cool in summer.
Robbins’ carpenter, Johnny Green, said straw has an R-51 rating. R ratings reflect the measurement of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness.
Green and his helper Jamison Cessac constructed all the framing and carpentry for the straw bale installation.
In this case, Robbins is using straw bales 18 inches wide by 14 inches tall and 36 inches long.
With an inch of plaster on each side, the walls will be 20 inches thick.
Attics can get as high as an R-49 rating in the Northeast. The higher the rating, the better the insulation.
Robbins noted that straw bale construction showed up again in the 1990s in the Whole Earth Catalog. Consequently, the unique way to build began anew.
In the last 30 years, the unique construction was added to the International Building Code.
Robbins moved two years ago in August from California and was enamoured with straw bale construction.
She had read a book by Bill and Athena Steen and David Bainbridge called The Straw Bale House.
She said the aesthetic appealed to her.
“I liked the deep windows, sort of adobe style and the walls are like 20 inches thick,” she said.
So when she arrived in Texas, she worked with an Austin architect – Ben Obregon – who had built at least two dozen of the houses plus the one he lives in.
“He came down to look at the site. I told him I wanted to see Copano Bay and Mullens Bayou from my house,” Robbins said.
Robbins said she also wanted to see the sunrise from her bedroom and have a wraparound porch to sit and read while viewing beautiful Copano Bay.
All of her wishes went into the engineering and planning of the house.
Would the straw bale house attract pests or insects?
“Straw is a waste product. All edible material is gone from it – it’s cellulose. Then it is sealed all the way around with plaster,” she said.
Cellulose is the major constituent of paper, paperboard, and card stock and of textiles made from cotton, linen, and other plant fibers, according to Wikipedia.
“The only concern is if it gets wet. That would help it rot,” she added.
To make sure the walls stay dry, Robbins specified a wide porch with large overhang. Underneath the pier and beam foundation, a trough was constructed wide as a bale and filled with pea gravel for drainage.
“To install, it has to have a frame and a roof to keep it dry. We put in gravel between bales and have toe-ups to raise the bales at least 3 inches off the floor,” said Kindra Welch of the Austin-based Welch Curry LLC, the straw bale house company that installed the straw bales.
“We have little nails sticking out. The first bales get impaled to stabilize them. then we stack all the bales,” Welch said.
Once the straw is installed in the framing, stabilized with stobs, smoothed with a grass trimmer and all cavities and holes backfilled with straw and native clay, a lime plaster is applied to seal the straw.
But first, a slip coat of clay is applied to the outside of the straw followed by the lime plaster over a woven galvanized mesh over the straw and under the plaster.
Worried about a fire hazard?
“It is packed so densely that it has a much higher rating because no oxygen to feed the fire can be had. It smolders a little bit and goes out,” Robbins said.
It took six days to install the straw bales. Welch Curry LLC, of Austin, was discovered through the Austin architect.
“I couldn’t find an engineer anywhere around who knew about straw bale, but we found one in Crested Butte, Colo.,” Robbins said.
Robbins had purchased 500 bales from Walton Alfred Franke and 400 of them were used. She paid $5.50 a bale, including delivery.
On average, straw bale construction costs about half of traditional construction using some other material.
The installation of the straw cost $6,400, but that doesn’t include the plaster coating and seal.
Welch said she has been in the straw bale house building for about 10 years and involved in construction since 1998.
The 37-year-old earned her degree from Rice University in architecture, and she said Rice has a superb design/building program.
She worked with Design Corps, part of AmeriCorps, in Pennsylvania. The program involved constructing migrant farm work housing.
Her crew includes Jaime Hutton, Kate Farrington, Virginia Costilla and Connie Robbins. Her husband and partner is generally on site as a carpentry/trim carpenter, or if that is not needed, he takes care of the couple’s two children.
Hutton said she loves the work and would like to have a straw bale house.
She said she used to work at grocery stores.
“Every time I gave a plastic bag away, it hurt my soul,” she said.
She said straw bale construction is about something good for the environment.
Not only that, the work has inspired her to progress in the construction field.
“I’m planning to go to Texas State University for construction engineering,” she said.
The other young women on the crew also plan to further their careers.
Robbins also plans on a metal roof with solar panels for her house’s energy. She said she will use propane for the stove, water heater and dryer.
On the south side of the house, she has a 10,000 gallon tank to collect rain water.
She has an additional 3,000 gallon tank for collecting rain, as well.
“I will collect rain water for all water needs, and I will filter it,” she said.
She noted that one inch of rain will produce 600 gallons per 1,000 square feet of roof.
“And I bought a wood burning stove,” she said.
The straw bale house will be self sufficient for all practical purposes.
Oh, and even if there was something wanting to blow Robbins’ house down, it would have to blow pretty hard. Her straw bale house is built to windstorm standards, including hurricanes.