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Don't blow this house down

  • 2006-10-04
  • By Joel Alas

HUFF AND PUFF: Inspired by a new fad among eco-friendly homeowners in the U.S.A., some Estonians are now building straw houses.

TALLINN - Rene Valner is building a house from straw. According to fairy tales, it's not the smartest construction method. But according to ecologists, it just might be the best solution for home construction in the Baltics. "Straw is an excellent insulator. These houses are not only built from recyclable low-cost material, they are also incredibly warm. They're perfect for Estonian living," Valner says.

Valner, 34, is an architect who takes a hands-on approach to his designs. He doesn't just draw the blueprints, he also takes over as construction foreman.
"It is essential to not only design a project, but actually build it to get experience and feedback on how to do it better next time," he says.

So, after years of investigating the concept of strawbale houses, it was natural for Valner to get his hands dirty to discover the real benefits and drawbacks of the building material.
A strawbale house looks identical to a normal house but with thicker walls. The straw is used as a filler between the exterior walls. It's held in place by mesh wire and covered with plaster and clay to keep out moisture. Some builders go further and use compacted straw for load bearing walls.

Some argue that the building costs can be as much as 15 percent lower, but for the most part strawbale houses take more manpower to erect.
While the idea might be new in the Baltics, it's a well-founded tradition elsewhere. It has become somewhat of a craze in the United States, where green-thinking do-it-yourself builders have rediscovered the centuries-old tradition of using resources such as straw and clay.
Many city governments in the United States have added strawbale construction to their local building codes. The Internet is awash with information about how to build your own home, and inquisitive first-timers flood message boards with queries about the how's and why's.

Valner first came into contact with the idea through Mikk Suursild, a builder and friend who traveled to the United States to learn about stawbale.
"It's connected with your overall view of the world," Valner says. "I think it's quite stupid to build houses the conventional way. It's a waste of material and money."

Architects of the traditional method employ a lot of plastic, which makes heat ventilation that much more expensive, he says. "People should build simple houses that don't use a lot of energy. It's about operating on the basic physical laws. Using straw as insulation is one of those."
At first, Valner says, he was just interested in strawbale as an alternative possibility. "I wasn't so much aware of all the social and environmental aspects. It was more about the material and a cheap way to build. But it's more complex. It's about energy and community also."

His first chance to put all his new information into practice came when a customer asked him to build a unique house at Haademeeste, a seaside town just south of Parnu and just north of the Latvian border.
Haademeeste, a.k.a. "A Place of Good Men," lived up to its name as Valner and his friends and colleagues set up camp by the seashore to begin constructing one of Estonia's first strawbale houses.

The design is quite simple: a rectangular base with a tiered roof that faces south to take advantage of natural solar heat.
It has taken nearly four months and 1,200 bales, but Valner's straw house is now nearly complete. He hired contractors to carry out the detail work, to lay the foundation, install plumbing, electric wiring and a sauna. He did everything else himself.
Rait Parts, one of those friends, is a glass artist who now wants to use strawbales to build a studio.
"I liked the idea of using natural products," Parts says. "It certainly takes a long time, but I think it's worth it in the end."
I was also invited to take part in the building process. For two days I camped with the other workers at the building site, sleeping in the shell of the house, using strawbales as a mattress.

It proved to be a very rewarding yet intensive construction process that required a lot of manual labor and long hours.
I manned the cement mixer, running buckets of sand, water, clay and straw between the material piles and the building site. We mixed cement from 9 a.m. until almost 9 p.m., the long summer nights extending the workable hours into the evening.
Other workers packed the cement between boards to create internal walls.
Carrying the strawbales from the truck to the house was a tiring experience. The straw itched, and we made frequent trips to the sea to get rid of the straw stuck to our bodies.

So now, as the project is almost over, how does Valner feel about the costs and benefits?
Well, the whole thing was a little more expensive than planned, but that was mostly because of the work on the cellar, which was done with concrete and steel. Still, with the lower ventilation costs, it's a money-saver in the end.
Suursild, the architect who inspired Valnar, gives some concrete numbers. "If you build a house yourself with friends and just a few contractors, you are going to save 40 percent. If you hire all contractors, you'll still save 10 to 15 percent of costs."
He goes on: "We are trying to build houses where one square meter will cost 5,000 to 7,000 kroons (319.56 's 447.38 euros), which is about half the price of the average house. We want people to know that they can build a house for much less and use better materials. You don't have to waste so much money."

Valner and Suursild have started a company that specializes in strawbales, and are already in the middle of designing two more houses.
But with Estonia's construction shortage, many are also deciding to do it themselves.
"Every week somebody calls asking for advice," says Valner.
"The key is to be smart in the design. You can build houses that are very big and wasteful using straw if you don't plan it
right."