A research project led by the University of Bath and Modcell, a specialist firm of architects, has resulted in what they say are the world’s first commercially available straw homes. Do not be blown down by the notion that these houses belong to fairy tale or even yesteryear; many believe they are the future of sustainable and affordable housing.
Although the seven houses in Shirehampton, Bristol, are not Britain’s first homes to be constructed using straw bales, they are the first of their kind to be put on the British property open market. Whether you want to add something a bit different to your UK property portfolio or are seeking an eco-friendly home; now is your opportunity to make that acquisition.
Not just wattle and daub
In order to satisfy planning requirements and match the neighbouring properties, the houses’ exteriors appear quite ordinary: tiled roofs and brick cladding. However, once you go beyond that the secret of this super insulated construction is revealed: their timber-framed walls are filled with straw bales.
Constructing anything from straw will inevitably raise the question of how it will perform in the event of a fire. Could one spark lead to total devastation? And in contrast, potential homeowners will unquestionably want to know whether the eco-friendly abodes will be a cosy safe haven on the coldest of winter’s evenings.
Quite simply put: can straw really compare to bricks and mortar? It would appear so.
Professor Peter Walker, who led the three year research project, has revealed that this construction method performed better than many contemporary alternatives when tested for fire resistance and against extreme forms of weather.
Financial and environmental benefits
The initial outlay of constructing a straw bale property is less than that of “usual” construction methods (a previous project in Leeds indicated that this reduction could be by as much as 20%). Homeowners can also expect to enjoy a significant reduction in their fuel bills. Estimates in this regard for the Shirehampton project have been as high as 90%.
So far so good on the financials but will potential owners be able to find an institutional lender that will provide mortgages for homes constructed in this way? In the past, this has proved to be a stumbling block. However, the developers of the Shirehampton houses state that the project has received the standard construction certification which they believe will give high street mortgage providers the confidence needed to lend on straw bale constructed properties. This remains to be tested.
Annually the UK wheat flour industry generates up to seven million tonnes of residuary straw. Due to its inferior quality and inexpensive price, approximately half of this is used for animal bedding. And what of the remaining half? Astonishingly, this could be used to construct over half a million low carbon new homes in the UK. Opting to construct straw bale houses over the current predominant methods would help the construction sector to achieve the carbon emission targets set by the Climate Change Act 2008. The industry has just 35 years left to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% and energy consumption by 50%.
When all this is taken into consideration, it seems senseless that this low cost, widely available and ecologically friendly construction material has been overlooked for so long.
Can straw bale houses really be the answer to the housing shortage?
Undoubtedly, cheaper build and energy costs and a low carbon option will need to be at the forefront of any long term solution to the UK housing shortage. Generally, previous projects indicate that councils and social housing associations appear to be more minded to use this method of construction. If high street lenders continue to be hesitant to lend against straw bale constructed homes then it may be that this inexpensive construction method will be the preserve of affordable and social housing rather than an eco-investor’s ideal.