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December 03, 2016
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Building expert talks about straw build houses

Remember the story of the three little pigs, and how the wolf took advantage of two of them but lost to the smart, third little pig? The second little pig who built his house with straw got blown down by the wolf. That reportedly can never happen with the new technology of building with straw bales, which is gaining popularity now with environmentalists in the building trades.

Last week, a local environmental group brought in an expert on building with straw bales to teach interested people on how to go about it.

Sustainable Energy Education and Development (SEEDS) has become a leader in our area in numerous environmental projects that can conserve energy, promote sustainability and build community.

“Because of the interest in building with straw bales, we decided to bring in Mike Belasco who is an expert in this kind of environmental building and the founder of The ReVerse Foundation, a hand-on environmental education group,” said Kathy Dodge, one of the group’s founders.

Belasco, who has studied straw building as part of his bachelor’s degree, soon disproved the common mistaken opinion of building with hay.

“First of all, we are not talking here about hay bales,” he told an audience of about 35 people who gathered at the Wayne County Complex on Route 6 in Honesdale. “Hay is too moist, changeable and unsuccessful as a building material. On the other hand, straw is far superior in this kind of building.”

He drew a distinction between hay and straw.

“Hay is grass, alfalfa and clover cut and dried to be food for herds,” he said. “Straw is the stems of cereals like wheat, barley, oats and rye that are left behind when combine machines cut the tops of cereal grains. The rest of the grain below the seeds part is what becomes straw.”

Straw is a malleable, steady, efficient cooler and heater in a variety of atmospheric conditions, he said.

“Straw has been proven to stand up better than any other building material during an earthquake and stands firm against hurricanes and typhoons,” he said.

Building with straw bales will never burn since straw has no oxygen in it. There is a saying among straw bale folks that if there is a fire in the house, you have a week to get out.
Straw bales make excellent, durable walls when stacked tightly together. They can be cut and shaped to conform to many designs.

Building with straw is at least 100 years old, beginning in Europe and migrating to America when immigrants went west after the passing of the Homestead Act of the 1800s.
“There are straw buildings still standing in Sandhill, NE,” he said.

This is a new and exciting field that many are learning in construction. “There’s a great deal of passion being generated in America and Australia with this material,” Belasco said.
As far as costs are concerned, straw bale houses can cost as much as conventional houses. “When people build these houses, it’s a community event,” he said. “Get a lot of beer and pizza together, call in your friends and neighbors and build community. It also saves money.”