Straw Bale Evangelists Building French Homes

No more huffing and puffing, houses of straw are far from fairy tales: in the Vosges, residents will soon be comfortably settled in Europe’s first 8-storey straw bale block untroubled by any Three Piggy wolf at the door.

The wolf blows down the straw house in a 1904 adaptation of the fairy tale Three Little Pigs (Credit Wikipedia)

Sorry Mr Wolf but technology has overtaken the fairy tale, and the three little pigs would be safe as well .. houses in a straw home today
(Credit Wikipedia)

And as Mike Alexander, our roving nature and gardening correspondent, reports below, one enterprising farmer is literally sewing small houses together with baling twine and giant needles!

According to Le Parisien: “HLM Toit Vosges is completing 26 apartments in Europe’s first ever 8-floor timber and straw apartment block — the Résidence Jules-Ferry at Saint-Die des Vosges, near Strasbourg, due for delivery by Christmas. The company is a specialist in low-cost social housing and says the new technique it is using offers significant all round savings.

“The advantages of timber construction are now well known: it is not more expensive, it responds better to earthquakes, and it allows for a cleaner building site,” says Jean-Marc Gremmel the company’s director.

Jean Marc Gremmel director of the building firm

Antoine Pagnoux, the architect of this multi-story public housing project adds: “Straw is an infinitely renewable material, it grows each year,and is an excellent insulator”. As for fire concerns he says: “Contrary to popular belief, wood like charred straw and coal becomes an insulation and together the two gain more fire resistance”. He said the method ensures a clean and fast construction site “without any drying time unlike concrete and brick structures”.

The technique took off after initial tests in 2004, which led to permission for the construction of buildings for public use in 2006. In 2009, further fire resistance studies were carried out by the Centre scientifique et technique du bâtiment and these convinced the Issy-les-Moulineaux (Hauts-de-Seine) to allow for the construction of a large two floor school building.

The establishment of professional standards approved by l’Agence Qualité Construction (AQC)  has now opened the door to the ten year insurance policy reuired for all new build and manufacturer guarantees. In France, there are now thought to be some 3000 straw constructions of which 700 are public buildings.

The Vosges apartment block also ranks high in terms of energy performance: where social housing tenants in homes built in the 70s sometimes pay as much to 150 euros a month for heating alone, this project is designed to keep total monthly charges as low as 10 to 15 euros.

“Apart from a heat pump and solar thermal collectors, the building aims to collect and reuse as many calories as possible from air extraction and water discharges, which helps keep down tenant charges to a very low level “, says the architect.

The roof of the building will be covered with solar panels, all units face south, showers are push-button operated to reduce water consumption and each apartment is fitted with an energy monitor, a low-power oven and induction plates while elevators will be of the “recoverable energy” type, he added.

Intrigued by the Vosges report Mike Alexander, our roving nature and gardening correspondent set out to follow his own straw house adventure captured in this photographic report. Mike says there are considerable differences between building a single home unit and a multiple housing project such as that in the Vosges. Most notable was watching the bales “literally sewn together with baling twine and giant needles”!

Here is his report:

Building with straw is nothing new. It has been done for hundreds, if not thousand of years, but the last twenty years have seen a massive revival of interest in the straw bale as a base building material. This recent revival has been in part inspired by the need for more environmentally friendly building materials but also by people looking for a cheaper substitute than the industrially produced materials currently available.

"Chateau Straw a Quercy style starw bale home in the Lot (Credit Mike Alexander)

“Chateau Straw” a Quercy-style straw bale home in the Lot (Credit Mike Alexander)

One sheep farmer in the Lot (46500) who has really converted to the straw bale concept in a big way is Patrice Ravet. Patrice’s first project was to build a large farm house entirely from recycled building products and locally purchased straw bales.

Not only that but he built it in the traditional Quercy style, complete with a pigeonier. His second build was a small gite, again in the traditional Quercy style with wide spread use of second hand materials. Once completed, the building owed him just twelve thousand euros. He recovered half of that amount in his first rental season.

Patrice is a small scale farmer who did not inherit his land but battled hard to gain a toe-hold in the farming industry. Many of the farms that come onto the market today are snatched up by larger farmers or by big conglomerates. Patrice believes that young people are the future of agriculture in France and if the trend towards urbanization is to be slowed, it is important that they are able to start farming at affordable prices.

The photo gallery below — credit Mike Alexander — show what can be done with low cost straw bales sewn together:

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With this philosophy he has begun running straw bale building courses where whoever is interested, can turn up and learn to build a small two floor 16m2 cottage for less than ten thousand euros.

I followed the first course he offered and watched as a cottage went up in just two weeks.

The cottage does not have a wooden frame as is traditional in larger straw bale builds. The roof itself is also made from bales using an ancient vaulted technique that eliminates the need for heavy roof beams. As the structure goes up it is literally sown together using baling twine and giant needles made of reinforcing steel. It is then plastered by hand using a mixture of clay and lime that protects the straw from the elements and helps bind the building at the same time. Window apertures are simply cut in using a chain straw.

Finally roofing lathes are nailed to a light frame and the roof is then tiled with what ever second hand tiles are available. Although the course does not go into the detail of water or electricity, provision is made in the original process to allow these to be installed. The process is labour intensive but most of the people on the course had never been involved in the building industry, yet they left confident that they would be able to put up a small cottage to house them as they start their farming ventures. At a later stage they can add to the cottage or build a bigger home and turn the cottage into a building with another purpose.

The video below (a report by French news agency AFP and from which the screen captures above were taken), explains the technique:


Story: Mike Alexander

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