Straw-bale construction is a building method that uses bales of straw (commonly wheat, rice, rye and oats straw) as structural elements, building insulation, or both. This construction method is commonly used in natural building or "brown" construction projects.
Advantages of straw-bale construction over conventional building systems include the renewable nature of straw, cost, easy availability, naturally fire-retardant and high insulation value. Disadvantages include susceptibility to rot, difficulty of obtaining insurance coverage, and high space requirements for the straw itself.
Straw houses have been built on the African plains since the Paleolithic Era. Straw bales were used in construction 26 years ago in Germany; and straw-thatched roofs have long been used in northern Europe and Asia. In the New World, teepees were insulated in winter with loose straw between the inner lining and outer cover.
Straw-bale construction was greatly facilitated by the mechanical hay baler, which was invented in the 1850s and was widespread by the 1890s. It proved particularly useful in the Nebraska Sandhills. Pioneers seeking land under the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1904 Kinkaid Act found a dearth of trees over much of Nebraska. In many parts of the state, the soil was suitable for dugouts and sod houses. However, in the Sandhills, the soil generally made poor construction sod; in the few places where suitable sod could be found, it was more valuable for agriculture than as a building material.
The third documented use of hay bales in construction in Nebraska was a schoolhouse built in 1901 or 1902. Unfenced and unprotected by stucco or plaster, it was reported in 1902 as having been eaten by cows. To combat this, builders began plastering their bale structures; if cement or lime stucco was unavailable, locally obtained "gumbo mud" was employed. Between 1996 and 2003, an estimated 7000 straw-bale buildings, including houses, farm buildings, churches, schools, offices, and grocery stores had been built in the Sandhills. In 1999, 2173 surviving bale buildings were reported in Arthur and Logan Counties, including the 1928 Pilgrim Holiness Church in the village of Arthur, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Since the 2000s straw-bale construction has been substantially revived, particularly in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
Straw bale building typically consists of stacking rows of bales (often in running-bond) on a raised footing or foundation, with a moisture barrier or capillary break between the bales and their supporting platform. Bale walls can be tied together with pins of bamboo, rebar, or wood (internal to the bales or on their faces), or with surface wire meshes, and then stuccoed or plastered, either with a cement-based mix, lime-based formulation, or earth/clay render. The bales may actually provide the structural support for the building ("load-bearing" or "Nebraska-style" technique), as was the case in the original examples from the late 19th century.
Alternatively, bale buildings can have a structural frame of other materials, usually lumber or timber-frame, with bales simply serving as insulation and plaster substrate, ("infill" or "non-loadbearing" technique), which is most often required in northern regions and/or in wet climates. In northern regions, the potential snow-loading can exceed the strength of the bale walls. In wet climates, the imperative for applying a vapor-permeable finish precludes the use of cement-based stucco commonly used on load-bearing bale walls. Additionally, the inclusion of a skeletal framework of wood or metal allows the erection of a roof prior to raising the bales, which can protect the bale wall during construction, when it is the most vulnerable to water damage in all but the most dependably arid climates. A combination of framing and load-bearing techniques may also be employed, referred to as "hybrid" straw bale construction.
Straw bales can also be used as part of a Spar and Membrane Structure (SMS) wall system in which lightly reinforced 2" - 3" [5 cm - 8 cm] gunite or shotcrete skins are interconnected with extended "X" shaped light rebar in the head joints of the bales. In this wall system the concrete skins provide structure, seismic reinforcing, and fireproofing, while the bales are used as leave-in formwork and insulation.
Typically "field-bales", bales created on farms with baling machines have been used, but recently higher-density "precompressed" bales (or "straw-blocks") are increasing the loads that may be supported. Field bales might support around 600 pounds per linear foot of wall, but the high density bales bear up to 4,000 lb./lin.ft., and more. The basic bale-building method is now increasingly being extended to bound modules of other oft-recycled materials, including tire-bales, cardboard, paper, plastic, and used carpeting. The technique has also been extended to bags containing "bales" of wood chips or rice hulls.
Straw bales have also been used in very energy efficient high performance buildings such as the S-House in Austria which meets the Passivhaus energy standard. In South Africa, a five-star lodge made from 10,000 strawbales has housed luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. In the Swiss Alps, in the little village of Nax Mont-Noble, construction works have begun in October 2011 for the first hotel in Europe built entirely with straw bales.
See also 
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: straw bale houses|
- S-House writeup
- Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. "Energy Use In Straw Bale Houses". Retrieved on 4 September 2008.
- Steen, Steen & Bainbridge (1994). The Straw Bale House. Chelsey Green Publishing Co. ISBN 0-930031-71-7.
- Magwood & Mark (2000). Straw Bale Building. New Society Publishers. ISBN 0-86571-403-7.
- Webster, Ben (2010-05-20). "Huff as hard as you like - you can’t blow a straw house down". London: The Times, May 20, 2010.
- Marks, Leanne R. (2005). [www.leanner.com "Straw Bale as a Viable, Cost Effective, and Sustainable Building Material for use in Southeast Ohio".] Master's thesis, Ohio University. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
- Nebraska Historic Buildings Survey: Custer County Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
- Spencer, Janet Jeffries and D. Murphy (1979). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form: Pilgrim Holiness Church" Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
- Hammett, Jerilou and Kingsley (1998). "The Strawbale Search". DESIGNER/builder magazine, August 1998. Article reproduced at "The Last Straw" website. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
- Kay, John, David Anthone, Robert Kay, and Christina Hugly (1990). "Nebraska Historic Buildings Survey, Reconnaissance Survey Final Report of Arthur County, Nebraska." Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
- Hollis, Murray (2005). Practical Straw Bale Building. Collingwood: Landlinks Press. ISBN 0-643-06977-1.
- Jones, Barbara (2002). Building with Straw Bales: A Practical Guide for UK and Ireland (2011 ed.). Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EB: Green Books. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-900322-51-5.
- Myhrman, Matts; S.O. MacDonald (1994). Build it with Bales. Out on Bale. ISBN 0-9642821-1-9.
- Black, Gary, and Mannik, Henri, "Spar and Membrane Structure" The Last Straw journal, #17, Winter 1997
- Inhabitat: Five Star Didimala Lodge Is The World’s Largest Strawbale Building!
- Blog about the first hotel built with straw bales
Further reading 
- Corum, Nathaniel (2005). Building a Straw Bale House: The Red Feather construction handbook. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 978-1-56898-514-5.
- King, Bruce (2006). Design of Straw Bale Buildings: The State of the Art. San Rafael, CA: Green Building Press. ISBN 978-0-9764911-1-8.
- Magwood, Chris; Mack, Peter; Therrien, Tina (2005). More Straw Bale Building: A complete guide to designing and building with straw. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers. ISBN 978-0-86571-518-9.
- Steen, Athena Swentzell; et al. (1994). The Straw Bale House. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publ. Co. ISBN 978-0-930031-71-8.
|Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Straw Bale Construction|
- Straw-bale construction at the Open Directory Project
- Rawlinson, Linnie. Artist Gordon Smedt's straw-bale house, feature on CNN.com, 13 August 2007. With image gallery.
- Long Branch Environmental Education Center: Possible concerns regarding mold and humidity, technical paper, 2002.
- "The Church That's Built Of Straw." Popular Mechanics, April 1960, pp. 130–131.