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Environmentally Efficient Elegance

By July 8, 2024July 10th, 2024No Comments

Building a Straw Bale Net Zero Carbon Home

With more than forty percent of greenhouse gases worldwide coming from the construction industry, including housing, it’s no wonder architects, developers, and homeowners are getting serious about cutting CO2 emissions and building net-zero carbon homes. The goal of net-zero carbon homes is to be less reliant or completely free of greenhouse gas energy-producing fossil fuels and non-sustainable materials to build, heat, cool and power a home. CO2 emissions account for eighty percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US in 2022, a major factor in climate change worldwide.

Constructing homes from natural elements to increase energy efficiency isn’t a new concept, but homes built with straw bales are becoming increasingly popular in the home-building industry. Not only are straw bale homes energy efficient, but they’re also fire-resistant, which sounds surprising but is true. That is just one of the many benefits of a straw bale home construction.

Straw Bale House

Using straw bales when constructing homes and buildings reduces the need for energy-consuming materials like lumber, concrete and steel. While those materials may still be used in a straw bale net zero carbon home, they will be minimal compared to a traditional build. There’s also reduced toxicity for the environment, the home and home dwellers. Using straw bales instead of traditional fiberglass insulation production involves significant energy use, can be made with toxic chemicals and is not biodegradable.

“Straw bale homes aren’t new, but they may be a new concept to some homeowners,” says Alexandra Saikley, Principal at Saikley Architects. “Our goal with straw bale construction – and any home we design –is to work with the environment and not against it. For thousands of years, people have been building with natural resources that are accessible in their region. A net zero carbon home constructed with straw bales that are readily and abundantly available just makes sense.”

A straw bale home can be designed to any style, such as this Craftsman style home by Saikley Architects in Hillsborough, California. A Craftsman-style home makes use aesthetically of the natural plaster and thick outer walls that the straw bale system creates.

Straw bale house with net zero emissions designed by Saikley Architects in a traditional Craftsman style

Hillsborough, CA net zero house

Getting Started Building a Straw Bale Net Zero Carbon Home

The right architectural team with experience building a straw bale house is key to this home construction project. An architectural team does much more than design a home’s overall look. Architects offer creative design solutions that enhance a home’s functionality, appearance and environmental suitability to create a home that is uniquely yours. There are few life events more exciting than building your own home.

An architect acts as the designer, project manager, budget and cost planner, and scheduler. An architect will oversee the construction process from start to finish. From concept to construction and move-in, architects provide a level of project management, quality control and a level of detail to the construction project that many builders are not able to provide.

Choosing the Right Architect for Straw Bale Homes

Working with an architectural firm ensures peace of mind during the construction process. As a single point of contact, an architect simplifies communication, minimizes costly delays and ensures that any conflicts or issues that arise will be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

It is important to choose an architect skilled in sustainable building and green design and one who is skilled in using sustainable, non-toxic, eco-friendly and recycled building materials. Choosing an architectural design firm that understands sustainable energy building and energy efficiency is the first and arguably most important step when considering a straw bale net zero carbon home build.

The History of Straw Bale Construction

The oldest inhabited straw bale home in the U.S. is Fawn Lake Ranch in Nebraska. Over 100 years old, this straw bale home is one of many in the region constructed of bales of late-season hay. The homes were popular in that region due to a combination of hay being abundant in the area (straw is a by-product of hay) and technological advancements in the farming industry, like hay balers, which allowed for easier movement of hay. Bales are made from loose straw, which is bound together into a round or square shape.

Different types of grain produce many varieties of hay. Grains such as rice, oats, barley, wheat and rye can all be used for straw bale homes. Straw is the stalk of the plant and is left over after harvesting grain. Nearly every state in the US produces a type of grain, making straw bales plentiful. Almost all populated areas of the US are within 500 miles of a straw-producing farm, making straw bales a local resource when it comes to construction materials.

The Hillsborough, CA home below shows how the thick natural-plastered straw bale walls are visible at the interior, and gives depth to the space.

straw bale new home build

How Straw Bale Becomes a Home

There are two basic types of construction for straw bale homes. First, there is the typical post-and-beam construction style building, where homes are framed and then insulated with straw bales. The second style, which is commonly referred to as the Nebraska style since it originated there, is where a home is built using straw for structural support, including the walls and roof.

Straw bale walls can be covered with earthen, lime or cement stucco. This combination of materials allows for excellent insulation in the home, keeping the home warm in winter and cool in the hotter months. Additionally, this combination of straw and wall helps add a high degree of fire resistance.

Utilities like plumbing and electrical can be installed within the walls, moldings, under floors and attics. Depending on the home’s design, solar panels can deliver energy and serve as a natural heat source, further reducing carbon emissions and leading to net zero emissions.

straw bales can be used for straw bale building

Hay vs. Straw: What’s the Difference?

Hay and straw are related, but many people outside of the agricultural industry may not know the difference. While these look similar, they are not the same. Hay has high nutritional value and contains proteins, vitamins and minerals, which is why it is used for feeding livestock. Hay is typically green in color and may contain seed heads and leaves. Different types of hay, like cow or horse hay, can be used for different animals. Hay is softer and more flexible than straw.

Straw is the hollow stalk that remains after harvesting grains. Once the top of the grain has been harvested, a golden yellow or pale yellow stalk is left behind. Straw is a non-digestible fiber and cannot be fed to livestock due to its lack of nutritional value. However, it can be used for many non-food purposes, such as building materials.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Worldwide

The effects of climate change are easy to see. Extreme heat, flooding, an increase in tropical storms and wildfires are just a few of the weather-related facets of global warming that seem to increase in frequency each year. In 2015, countries worldwide adopted the Paris Agreement to limit global warming and prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Nearly all countries part of the United Nations agreed to pursue efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Europe, the building industry is seeing a rise in the choice of straw as a construction method in straw bale homes and straw bale buildings. According to the European Straw Building Association (ESBA), straw bale homes are becoming increasingly popular in Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and The Netherlands in an effort to reduce Co2 emissions in construction.

Here in the US, California is leading the way in using straw bales in building materials. Non-profit associations like the California Straw Building Association (CASBA) are an organization aimed at people dedicated to straw building. CASBA works with state regulators to develop and promote building codes that support straw bale construction. They also help advocate for policies to encourage the use of sustainable building materials.

The future of building straw bale net zero carbon homes is promising when it comes to reducing the effects of global warming. Driven by strong environmental awareness, many homeowners recognize the benefits of a carbon-neutral home using straw bale to optimize energy efficiency and help to reduce greenhouse gases and climate change. The US and other countries around the world have adopted supportive policies that are helping straw bale homes become more mainstream.

A Straw Bale Zero Net Carbon Home

With straw bale as the focal point, a net zero carbon home can be built in many different ways using materials that are sustainable and energy-efficient. The goal of a net zero-carbon home is to produce as much energy as it consumes. The ‘zero’ aspect of a zero net carbon home is for the home, through building materials, design and energy-efficient power sources, to produce all the energy it needs to sustain itself without adding more carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Beyond reducing carbon emissions that have a detrimental effect on the environment, a net zero-carbon home is typically less expensive to build and maintain and protects homeowners from rising energy prices.

net zero straw bale construction, open concept bedroom

Sustainable Straw Bale Style

A straw bale net zero carbon homes minimal impact on the environment is significant. Using a straw, a naturally occurring material, immediately begins the cycle of reducing environmental waste. Straw, in its natural state, helps remove carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere. Plants naturally absorb carbon emissions through photosynthesis. As plant matter decomposes, it naturally releases carbon emissions. By using straw in buildings instead of decomposing, there’s a significant environmental impact already realized that’s directly related to mitigating climate change.

Yet that’s just the start. Straw bale net zero carbon homes are constructed with materials that are less toxic to the environment and humans. Most building materials have less chemically treated materials making the home healthier from an environmental standpoint as well as cleaner indoor air with less chemical exposure for inhabitants.

Another environmental aspect of a straw bale net zero carbon home is its biodegradability. Although these homes are designed to last for hundreds of years, if rebuilding becomes necessary for any reason, the materials used can be returned to the earth with minimal impact, a significant step in reducing global warming.

Straw bale house with Craftsman style designed by Saikley Architects

Benefits of a Straw Bale Net Zero Carbon Home

There are many benefits to straw bale homes and quite a lot of consider when choosing the right building material for your home. Here are a few of the benefits of building a home from straw bale versus traditional building materials:

Insulation. Straw bale homes can save homeowners up to 75% on their energy bills compared to a traditionally built home.

Durability. Straw bale net zero carbon homes that are professionally designed and built as well as properly maintained can last for hundreds of years.

Soundproof. Straw bale homes have excellent acoustic insulation. A straw bale wall is very effective for blocking sound and reducing noise levels within the home.

Natural humidity control. Straw bales have the ability to absorb and release moisture, helping to regulate indoor humidity levels.

Tax Incentives. There are many federal and state-wide tax incentives for energy-efficient home building that homeowners can take advantage of.

High fire safety ratings. Because straw bales are tightly compressed, less oxygen circulates within them, making it harder for fires to start and burn easily.

Improved indoor air quality. Straw bale homes can naturally regulate humidity, reducing dust mites and mold, which are common allergens.

Minimal building waste. Compared to traditional home construction, straw-bale homes use less non-compostable waste. Any leftover straw from construction can be composted or used as mulch.

Affordability. Straw bales are widely available and generally inexpensive to buy. Additionally, the cost of producing and transporting straw bales is less than traditional materials like concrete and steel.

Customization. As with any home, a straw bale net zero carbon home can be customized to suit almost any design style, making it unique and personalized to a homeowner’s aesthetic choice.

Environmentally responsible. Straw bale net zero carbon homes are sustainably built and reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the environment, helping to mitigate global emissions and greenhouse gases.

First plan sketch of a Craftsman style straw bale construction designed by Saikley Architects

Ready to hire an architect? Are you ready to build your own straw bale and/or net zero carbon home? Contact us today.

Contact Saikley Architects