U of S lecturer builds cheap, green straw house: construction prohibited within city limits

Bert Weichel built his home using straw bales as exterior walls, which he argues is cheap and environmentally-friendly.

Not even the Big Bad Wolf has the lungs to topple this straw house.

Bert Weichel, a University of Saskatchewan geography and environmental studies lecturer, has built himself a home just south-west of Saskatoon using straw bale construction. He says humans have been using straw structures for centuries, and that it is a cheap and eco-friendly alternative to conventional building materials.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” said Weichel. “Technologically, they are really simple.”

Weichel began work on the 1,650-square-foot house in the summer of 2006, handled the bulk of the labour himself and has been living there full-time since 2009 with his wife. With two floors, an angled, overhanging roof and a sturdy timber frame, it’s almost impossible to tell the outer walls are made of 350 rectangular straw bales.

Blanketing the straw is a double-coat of white lime stucco, layered in excess for added protection against moisture and pests. During the winter, a central wood-burning stove heats the space while two racks of solar tubing on the roof heat water for the house.

The house is even equipped with a no-flush urinal and a composting toilet.

“This is a fancy, expensive version,” Weichel said, “but you could build a basic straw bale house — 1,000 square feet — for probably $50,000.”

Not only is the building material cheap, but Weichel’s utility bill is also far lower than what it would be in a conventionally-built home. He said he sees real potential in straw bale construction because it is both affordable and simple.

“We need a breakthrough in the cities,” he said. “I would have liked to have built in Saskatoon.”

Currently, bale homes are not permitted within city limits. Ten years ago a city councillor requested a report to establish new guidelines when it comes to building straw bale houses.

The straw is secured to the mesh siding of the walls.

According to the decade-old report, the City of Saskatoon is authorized by provincial legislation to administer and enforce the 1995 National Building Code, which does not acknowledge straw bale construction. Administration recommended that the city not revise its position on the use of straw bale construction.

“This position should remain in place until such time as the National Building Code is re-written to include provisions for straw bale construction or the professional engineering industry, as a whole, has embraced the concept and is willing to place their seal on all drawings,” the report reads.

Weichel said it is simply a matter of city officials being “stuck in their ways.”

“It’s a reflection of whether or not a municipality or a city wants to allow creative thinking,” he said. “It’s about conventional approaches being easy to manage.”

Most other major cities in Canada take the same approach, and as a result, the use of straw bale construction in urban centres is practically non-existent.

Rural municipalities, on the other hand, are not usually required to abide by the code and therefore regularly allow straw bale construction.

In the south-central Saskatchewan rural municipality of Craik, for instance, a group of straw bale construction supporters have organized and formed the Craik Sustainable Living Project, which, according to their website, promotes “the use of ecologically sound technologies and ways of living.”

Weichel estimates there are as many as 1,000 straw bale homes across the country and says the technique could be the answer to some of Canada’s housing problems.

He pointed to the housing crisis in some First Nations communities, and suggested they could potentially benefit from adopting the cheap and easy-to-use method. He said straw bale construction can be taught to beginners relatively quickly and many reserves are conveniently surrounded by farm lands that produce straw.

“It takes one year to grow a bale; it takes 100 years to grow a tree,” Weichel said.


Photos: Supplied

  • http://craigmcnaughton.ca Craig McNaughton

    What kind of fire prevention options are available? Straw is pretty flammable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daryl.hofmann Daryl Hofmann

    In the interview, Bert Weichel explained that straw structures are actually more fire resistant than your standard wood house, due to the 1″ thick layer of stucco coating the straw.

    His quote was, “You can hold a propane torch up to the walls, walk away and come back in an hour, and there still won’t be a fire.”