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Two-storey semi a first for UK
At Ralegh’s Cross in Somerset, they’re building a two-storey semi out of straw bales. Of course they’ve heard the jibe (a thousand times) about the three little pigs whose flimsy house of straw got blown down by the big bad wolf. But the moral of this story is quite the opposite – that sturdy straw bale houses, pioneered in the mid-1800s in America’s corn belt, deserve serious attention as a sustainable option in the UK.
Peter Rowan, owner of the Ralegh’s Cross Hotel perched up at 1,300 feet on Exmoor, wants his new extension to provide a cosy housing solution for two staff families – while at the same time hitting the spot both economically and environmentally. Straw bales are much cheaper than bricks both to buy and to build with, so overall costs come in broadly comparable with a timber framed house. And the insulating qualities of straw bales make for energy-efficient buildings, supporting Rowan’s goal of a gradual move towards carbon neutrality. What’s more, using straw for construction is a great form of materials recycling; in theory we could build 250,000 homes a year from Britain’s current surplus of the stuff.
The building expertise comes from Yorkshire-based Amazonails, an all-female building and roofing outfit. It’s evolved into a social enterprise with a USP in designing, implementing and teaching straw bale construction. Enthusiasts can learn the basics on short courses that involve them in the actual build. There were up to 40 on site for a burst of activity at Ralegh’s Cross in late October, when the weather smiled sufficiently to get the walls up to first floor level. Tarpaulins are now keeping it dry until early spring, when they’ll finish the walls and lower the roof into place, compressing the bales to create a strong, load-bearing structure.
Meanwhile, Amazonails is touting straw bale construction as an ideal sustainable option for some of the facilities in London’s Olympic village – with the additional benefit of large-scale involvement of the local community, students and other volunteers. And it’s hoped this will feed into wider regeneration plans for east London and the Thames Gateway. – Roger East