A house made of straw 

Ball State project on sustainability

It’s been a rainy autumn in Central Indiana — not exactly optimum conditions for building a house with bales of straw. And when the wind kicked up not long ago, Timothy Gray, the Ball State professor of architecture who has been in charge of erecting such a house on a prairie lot near Muncie, was reminded of a familiar children’s story: “I couldn’t help but think of the Big Bad Wolf coming and blowing the building over,” he says. “But I’m happy to report it survived that and even stayed dry.”

Using straw bales as a building material dates back to the early 1800s. Straw-bale houses are not uncommon in more arid climates like the American Southwest. But straw-bale houses have been successfully built in Indiana and other parts of the Midwest and Gray believes they have great potential for sustainable development. “The straw bale makes a lot of sense because it’s a recycled content product,” Gray says. “It’s a waste product from agriculture. So we’re finding a new use and reinvesting that product with new life.”

Straw bales, Gray says, are a low-cost material that creates a beautiful interior and a sound-proof environment. “It has a very low front-end cost. It doesn’t require a particularly high level of skilled labor to build and it’s forgiving in the way it goes up. People can build the houses themselves with a little perseverance and some friends to help out.”

Gray estimates that the 600 square-foot-house that he and his students are building at Ball State costs $20 per square foot for materials. What’s more, straw bale houses are four to five times more energy efficient than typical houses.

Gray and his team have just completed Phase 1 of their straw-bale project. The building exists and it’s water-tight. In the project’s next phase, the team will experiment with different exterior and interior finish applications. “I think there is a market out there to build with straw and to use this technology,” Gray says.

The affordability of these houses is one of their greatest assets. Gray, who has done award-winning work with Habitat for Humanity, looks forward to making them aware of the project.

But Gray also wants this project to raise local awareness about sustainable development. Sustainability, Gray says, “is the sum total of a lot of smart decisions, from site planning to the finish materials that you’re using. We’re taking something that’s of no value and diverting it from the landfill. Rather than using crushed rock for the aggregate, we’re using fly ash, a waste product from electricity production. That can be a building product. All of our wood products are engineered lumber, which use recycled content and are truer and stronger and aren’t depleting our old growth forests.”

Gray has been surprised by the number of people who have visited the site and expressed an interest in building with straw themselves. He hopes the straw-bale project will generate a dialogue about sustainability and the changes that he thinks must eventually overtake the marketplace. Visitors are welcome to the project. To find out how to get there or for more information about the Ball State straw-bale project e-mail tcgray@bsu.edu or call 317-523-5757.

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