Page last updated at 02:37 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Council to build houses of straw

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News

Artist's impression of the straw bale social housing buildings
Artist's impression of the straw bale social housing buildings

A Lincolnshire council is due to announce details of its plans for the first social housing to be built from straw bales in Britain.

It may sound as if the idea is taken from fairy tales, but buildings made from straw bales have become increasingly popular in the UK during recent years.

And unlike the self-build property in The Three Little Pigs, these homes have gained a faithful following in the UK.

This is because they are viewed as being cheaper to build, have a reputation for providing good insulation, are sustainable and tend to be built using locally-sourced materials.

Now North Kesteven District Council has taken the trend a bit further by commissioning the three-bedroom semi-detached houses.

It is part of its bid to build affordable, environmentally-friendly homes.

'No different'

Costing 120,000 each, the four properties will be made out of 480 tightly-packed bales with lime-washed walls.

They will be located in the village of Martin and Waddington, with plans to begin construction later this year.

The council is the first local authority to do this, although a number of private homes and commercial buildings - including a trailer cabin and classrooms - have been built in the UK using the material.

Planning applications for the homes have been deposited with the council, and the developers are hoping to start building one pair in the late spring of this year.

They say the homes will look no different to conventional brick homes but will be three times more insulated.

Artist's impression of the straw bale social housing buildings
The council hopes other authorities will follow its stance

Council leader Marion Brighton believes the homes will help tackle the problem of providing affordable homes in the area.

"These straw houses are not only innovative, but also pioneering, as they are the first properties of this type to be built by a local authority to be used for social housing in the country. It's an exciting project and one that we are eagerly looking forward to completing," she said.

"This is a scheme that has not been matched by any other local authority, and it is hoped these houses, built through this new type of technology, will set a leading example to developers, housing associations and other councils throughout the country," she said.

The designers - social enterprise company and straw bale specialists Amazonails - say such buildings can save householders up to 80% a year on heating bills.

It is a philosophy backed by 43-year-old Rachel Shiamh - she used 400 wheat and barley straw bales to create her award-winning two-storey home in Penwhilwr, St Dogmaels, west Wales.

Her house is built out of straw bale bricks, without any other supporting structure.

Rachel Shiamh's straw bale home

She lives there with her dog and two cats and believes it was the best decision she could make.

She says: "It is a way of returning to nature - it's a far more breathable, natural, healthier environment.

"The insulation is fantastic and when you build a home like this you have the opportunity to sculpt and play with the clay and shape the bales to suit your desires."

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said the homes had to meet national building regulations but the government was not prescriptive about what materials had to be used for social housing buildings.

He said: "If the council think it is a good and effective idea - let them go for it."

The Department of Trade and Industry is also looking at the viability of materials such as straw bales by funding a study looking at the concept of creating construction materials from crops.

For Jon Aldenton, the chief executive of charity The Environment Trust, these are all positive steps.

He says: "The bales are sustainable and renewable even though this is old technology. They provide excellent insulation and cut down on energy bills - in the current climate this is extremely important."

Straw bale home
Rachel Shiamh was one of the first in the UK to use straw bales

Meanwhile, experts from Nottingham Trent University, the University of Plymouth, the University of Bath and the Cardiff School of Art and Design are investigating the durability of the buildings built with the bales.

They are also looking at how effective various technologies are at protecting the bales from decay and what the consequences are for homeowners who dare to be a little different.

Professor Steve Goodhew from Nottingham Trent University has been monitoring the bales for 10 years and says he's extremely interested in the plans to create council houses with the material.

"Although studies have been done in Canada and the US, we have a very different climate here in the UK and so we need to see if the material can stand up to the test of time.

"It's easy to see why straw bale houses are so popular. They can be produced at reasonable cost , have little embodied energy as they incorporate a waste product, and can provide superb insulation.

"We expect to see more of these homes being built over the next few years; the simple fact is that the price of food has risen so more wheat, oats and barley are being produced, resulting in more straw being used for building."

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