One of the world's first commercially available straw bale homes will open for Bristol Green Doors 2015. I met with owner, Finlay White, to have a look around and find out if straw could be a green solution to the housing crisis.
Finlay’s Shirehampton home, in a row of red brick terraces looks entirely unremarkable. From the outside there’s nothing that says ‘eco’ but a solar panel on the roof. When we go inside the feeling is much the same – just a few energy efficient appliances and the fresh scent of new home. It isn’t until Finlay opens up a cupboard in the wall, his that I see the entire terrace is made of straw.
I poke my hand inside what he calls his ‘truth window’ and feel around the densely packed straw wall, flanked by a thick layer of compressed straw board. The system is called ModCell and Finlay’s house is one of the first commercially available straw bale houses in the world.
Above: The innocuous straw bale construction, clad in red brick for planning permission.
It's certainly a far cry from the Three Little Pigs. But what about rodents, and surely a straw house is a fire risk? Not so says Finlay. The straw is so densely packed there’s not the oxygen to start a fire, and nowhere for rodents to live. The compressed straw board has the same fire rating as its plasterboard equivalent and straw (dry, empty stalks of grain) doesn’t contain food to attract furry friends.
So, could straw homes like this be a solution to the housing crisis? Finlay is rapidly persuading me that they could. With nine million tonnes of straw grown every year, mainly as a by-product of wheat production, there certainly isn’t a lack of it. Although six million tonnes of this is ploughed straight back into the soil or used for animal bedding, the remaining three million tonnes could be used to build homes. Nearly half a million of them.
Above: Homeowner Finlay demonstrating his 'Truth Window'
“It’s about turning the built environment into a carbon sink” explains Finlay. Whilst each of the seven three bed homes took about 22 tonnes of CO2 to build (with transport, materials etc), it locked away over 40 tonnes in the fabric of the building.
But it’s not just Finlay’s carbon footprint that is set to decrease. He’s looking forward to cutting his bills by an enormous 90% too. The new airtight houses - stacked with high quality glazing, A++ appliances, MVHR and solar PV - have an predicted running cost of just £190 per year. Finlay encourages me to think not just of the £235,000 purchase price, but of the lifetime running costs of the home too. And, with energy prices going up all the time, his argument makes a lot of sense.
Above: The houses are full of the latest energy-efficient technology including A+ and A++ appliances
Demand is high and the first seven Shirehampton homes sold out in just three days. With Ecology Building Society keen to offer mortgages for ModCell homes, I imagine the further 49 set to be built nearby will sell fast too.