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Straw buildings are often associated with a bygone era and technologies that we have since passed. However, recent years have seen a resurgence in construction with this natural material. This revival is fueled by the urgent need to reduce emissions from the construction sector, and straw buildings offer a viable option to sustainably reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. In addition, new construction technologies mean that straw buildings are now stronger than ever.

Image Credit: ushi / Shutterstock.com

Straw buildings do not collapse

Many countries in Europe have started to move away from unsustainable and environmentally harmful building materials to the cost-effective, low-carbon option of straw. France and Russia, in particular, adopted new straw construction technology early on, reviving a building material from the past to ensure a low-emission future.

Contrary to popular opinion, straw buildings are structurally sound and perfectly viable as building materials for houses and other buildings. Recent projects, like BaleHaus, built in Bath, UK, demonstrated how the combination of natural building materials of straw and wood can produce strong homes that perform beyond the requirements of building regulations.

BaleHaus, for example, was built with straw tightly wrapped in prefabricated rectangular wooden wall frames that were lime plastered, dried, and split together to create the final construction. As a result, the house performed very well in stress tests, proving its strength, durability and suitability as a building material.

For centuries, straw has been used as a reliable and durable building material. Currently, the oldest straw house in the world sits in Nebraska at 133 years old, demonstrating the potential to build straw buildings that last a lifetime.

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While the use of the material fell into disuse following the boom in the brick and then concrete industry, straw is now making a comeback in the construction industry.

It is abundantly available, is durable, has a low carbon footprint, can build strong and durable buildings that further reduce emissions by reducing heat loss, and is not associated with air and noise pollution attributed to construction with currently popular materials such as concrete. These advantages led to the emergence of straw as a building material.

A revival of natural materials will see the construction industry reduce its emissions

The construction industry is responsible for producing a large portion of global emissions. According to recent figures, the construction industry accounts for 38% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As the world comes under increasing pressure to reduce emissions in order to meet Paris Agreement targets, all industries must change their processes to make them sustainable and carbon neutral.

Since the construction industry is one of the largest emitters of CO2 in the world, it is faced with the challenge of radically changing its entire process, from the sourcing of materials, their transportation, the process of construction itself, and ensure that the buildings it creates are more energy efficient. As a result, the construction industry began to turn to natural building materials.

There is a current trend in the construction industry to turn to science to revive natural materials and processes. For example, a recent project by scientists at the University of Plymouth investigated how the old traditional building process Cob buildings could be relaunched and updated to meet current building regulations.

Similar projects are underway in India to revive the use of natural building materials such as mud by improving old techniques to establish new natural plasters with improved properties.

The straw bale building by Make Architects

Video credit: Make Architects / Youtube.com

Straw buildings, in particular, are experiencing a resurgence. Already, many companies have sprung up that design, produce building materials and construct buildings out of straw. British company Straw Works, for example, has been involved in 300 natural building projects over the past 25 years and has helped reestablish straw as a building material in the UK.

The resurgence of natural building materials and methods goes hand in hand with the evolution of the world towards sustainable practices and renewable energies. A carbon neutral world cannot be built on environmentally damaging practices and a reliance on materials that are not only attributed to greenhouse gas emissions, but also air pollution and sound.

Concrete alone is a major contributor to air pollution. Concrete production releases large amounts of dust into the air that is not confined to one location, as the concrete mixer trucks that transport concrete continue to spew concrete dust into the atmosphere as they travel to and from from the construction site.

It is essential that not only straw but also other natural building materials successfully reappear in order to develop a modern and carbon neutral construction industry. Modern technology is helping to develop these ancient building materials and methods to help ancient practices find their place in modern building.

These research projects will be key to seeing widespread adoption of environmentally friendly building materials and tackling emissions from the global construction industry.

References and further reading:

About Us. [Online]. Straw work. Available at: https://strawworks.co.uk/who-we-are/ (Accessed November 9, 2021)

Goodhew, S., Carfrae, J., Hood-Cree, K., Fox, M., Boutouil, M. and Streiff, F., 2019. Building with earth: how we work to revive a building technique old and durable. Research and innovation in construction, 10 (4), pp. 105-108. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/20450249.2019.1700077

Louise Tickle. (2010). Is straw the building material of the future ?. [Online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/jul/13/straw-houses-balehaus-bre (Accessed November 9, 2021)

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