Would you build your house out of straw?

Barbara Jones of Straw Works and the School of Natural Building who has co-organised the tenth biennial European Straw Bale Gathering
Barbara Jones of Straw Works and the School of Natural Building who has co-organised the tenth biennial European Straw Bale Gathering

Fiona Finch reports how Cuerden Valley Park Visitor Centre is a must-see for delegates attending a conference about public buildings made of straw.

Is it time to rethink the advice about not building houses of straw?

Barbara Jones demonstrating straw bale building techniques

Barbara Jones demonstrating straw bale building techniques

Rather than getting ready to “huff and puff” to blow such houses down - as in the popular Three Little Pigs nursery tale, should home hunters and creators be looking to such buildings as a preferred option?

Barbara Jones certainly thinks so pointing out they are sustainable, ecofriendly, cheap to run and economic to build.

This week the co-founder of the School of Natural Building (SNaB) will be joined by up to 200 like minded people.

Just across the Lancashire border, the town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire is the location for the tenth biennial European Straw Bale Gathering, which has been organised by Barbara and her School of Natural Building Co-Director Eileen Sutherland.

Constructing the Cuerden Valley Park Visitor Centre

Constructing the Cuerden Valley Park Visitor Centre

The four-day event forms part of UpStraw, an EU Interreg funded project.

Barbara, who also runs her own company, Todmorden-based Straw Works, is a passionate advocate of straw bale buildings.

The Gathering's attendees will get the chance to see both public and private examples of such buildings, including a notable example in Lancashire.

The programme includes the opportunity to visit the Cuerden Valley Park Visitor Centre, near Chorley.

Placing bales at the Cuerden Park Visitor Centre

Placing bales at the Cuerden Park Visitor Centre

Straw Works designed the centre which includes a cafe. Her company has been involved in helping create 500 buildings across the UK from tiny garden buildings to homes and public venues.

The centre has been registered for a prestigious “Living Building Challenge” accreditation and could be the first in the UK to reach this standard.

The building was created by the Trust’s own volunteers with training and guidance from the SNaB .Barbara said: “Cuerden Valley Park has a hybrid building - the cafe part is a timber frame as there is a lots of glass in it.”

In the rest of the building the bales are load bearing. Hundreds of hours of volunteer help went into the building’s creation.

It has an office and a multi use space/function room which can be used by school groups or private parties.

Park general manager Simon Thorpe said: “It’s unique in the UK and people love it. It’s in a stunning location and has got a fabulous view. The straw bale walls are load bearing. The roof is resting on the straw so structurally it’s quite a technical thing. It’s extremely well insulated - we barely need heating on in winter.

“The building has other environmental features such as rainwater harvesting to flush the loos, a ground source heat pump for heating. Much of the wood used in the building is from larch trees grown right here in the park. ”

Simon explained that in the cafe area straw bales were inserted into customised wooden frames.

The building sits on foundations made from old tyres compacted with limestone pea gravel and no cement or concrete has been used in its creation. He stressed: “No concrete, PVC or formaldehyde releasing plastic materials have been used in the building’s construction.

“There is already a lot of interest internationally in what we have achieved so far with visitors from Europe, New Zealand and the USA.”

In bale buildings the bales are covered in lime or clay plaster and are “breathable” meaning, said Barbara, that there are no condensation or mould problems.

Opening windows and doors provide ventilation or mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (mvhr) can be installed.

Factory made prefabricated modular panels, made of timber and straw can also be used to create buildings more quickly.

Straw bale buildings have a life span of more than 200 years. Barbara lists many other advantages including being quick to build when using modular panels and cost effective - with bales costing around £3.50 and an estimated £75,000 cost of self building a unique three bed house.

She adds such buildings have excellent thermal efficiency, needing little heating and use natural materials which do not let-off gas, noxious chemicals or fumes.

Barbara trained as a carpenter and joiner and set up her own company (the predecessor to Straw Works) in 1989 calling it Amazon Nails. The name had of course nothing to do with today’s internet shopping giant Amazon but was a humorous swipe at the accent in her home county: “I’m from Yorkshire where we drop our h’s ...think what it sounds like! And also because as a woman’s company we thought of ourselves as amazons. I’ve always liked a bit of humour.”

It was in 1994 when Barbara had taken a year out to look at environmentally friendly building round the world that she discovered straw bale buildings in America. The following year she gained a Churchhill Travelling Fellowship to research it further. She said: “Straw bale building has been going there since the 1870s when baling machines were invented. Straw in other forms has been used in construction forever. The Egyptians used it thousands of years ago.

"I did a two-day course thinking, ‘Well, it’s probably a good idea for California but it won’t work in England’. It totally transformed me. I knew from this course this was one way you could change construction, open it up to ordinary people you could provide everybody with an affordable house that was really healthy. That was what my mission has been since then.”

• The Straw Bale tours are on Thursday. The Gathering’s talks and demonstrations are on August 16-18 at Todmorden’s Hippodrome Theatre and College, with lunches at Todmorden Town Hall. Tickets cost £70 -£95 per day and £195 -£250 for three days, including food. Tours cost £25 and £15. See www.esbg2019.org

* Cuerden Valley Park Visitor Centre opened in March 2018 and is located at the Berkeley Drive entrance to the Park off Wigan Road. It is open daily from 9.30am to 5pm.