In a beautiful valley high up in Exmoor, Hawkland Ecological Construction have started work on a new straw bale house. I went to see the beginnings of the structure.
The timber platform rests on a foundation of used car tyres. These in turn rest on compacted hard core. The tyres are double stacked, and have been tightly filled with pebble infill. Hidden from UV radiation to slow the process of perishing, they are thought able to last for generations of occupation.
The roof will be supported by a timber structure, unlike the Oxfordshire straw bale house, where the straw was the structural component. The two different methods of building with straw are known as ‘straw infill’ – as here, where the roof will rest on a timber frame – and ‘load bearing’, where the straw bales themselves support the weight of the roof.
There are strong advocates for both methods of building with straw. Counter-intuitively, building a load-bearing straw structure can use more wood than a straw infil building. When the straw will be load-bearing, one needs a temporary wooden framework to support the roof, before the straw bales are installed.
Natural materials: moving away from a niche market
Dave Copeland of Hawkland Ecological Construction explains that the company is working to develop the use of natural, carbon-binding materials into a professionalised market. They are also involved with research into other bio-materials such as miscanthus and hempcrete, and have an interesting collaboration with IBERS – the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.
Straw is moving from an experimental technique, to a viable way to build long-lasting structures that out-perform mainstream ones.
The surrounding landscape is unspoilt and full of wildlife. I could not help feeling that this house, of natural and recycled materials will sit there harmoniously. One day, when it reaches the end of its life span, nearly everything will decompose, leaving minimal impact. In its lifetime as a family home, the thick straw walls will provide excellent insulation, meaning little energy will be needed to keep warm.
I look forward to seeing the house take shape further. Click here to see the build’s Facebook page for updates.