Jeff Green | May 08, 2008
Feature Article - May 8, 2008
Back toHomeFeature Article - May 8, 2008 You can huff & puff…but you can't blow Joe's house downBy Julie Druker
Joe Vidal explains the benefits and constructuion of a straw bale house.
Joe Vidal is definitely the king of this straw bale castle. In fact he designed and built it in six months himself, with a crew of course. Coinciding with Earth Day last weekend, he opened up his unique home to over 400 people who learned and saw first hand both the benefits and beauty of straw bale construction. As Joe points out "education is a big part of the process in this business in order to understand the benefits and to dispel the myths of straw bale building."
Nestled in the trees at 1841 Morrison Road near Sydenham, this stately 3500 square foot home lies on a single storey. It is reminiscent of the old world bungalows that exist in Europe, Australia and South America today. With classical lines, a red steel roof that recalls earthenware tiles and with evenly spaced wood framed windows set into orange stuccoed walls, the house blends easily into its surroundings.
Inside, the house is spacious, full of natural light, with clean and crisp lines; in fact it feels brand new. The presence of many low-hung ceiling lamps, wooden antiques and Persian carpets give it an old-world charm. The floors are a mottled ceramic tile. The walls are washed in a light orange hue; the window and door trims are white and add a kind of Mediterranean/New Mexico touch. In fact, the only hint of straw bales is the thickness and hand applied surface treatment of the walls which adds to the feeling of softness and warmth that the house exudes .
Joe let us linger awhile and then planted himself at the island in the centre of the large sunlit kitchen. With the help of a scale model that showed a cross section of the home, he explained its basic construction techniques. Approximately 1200 2 foot by 3 foot straw bales, each roughly 17 inches wide, were stacked like cement blocks to form the inner and outer walls of the home. The base of the home is a single poured concrete pad that encases U shaped sections of plastic tubing along with a radiant floor heating system. The stacked straw bale walls are fixed to the concrete slab through these plastic tubes with a series of wire cables that are tensioned and then fixed to the roof plate on top of the building. This design is typical of the “load bearing type of straw bale construction” in that the compressed straw bales with their layers of concrete support the entire roof structure.
Joe became interested in straw bale homes after spending 20 years in the business of constructing and restoring conventional homes. He became aware of the huge amount of waste involved in the process. Later on, having started a family, he began to think more environmentally about the world his kids would inherit and so began designing and building homes with straw bales. Joe insists, “This is not a new idea. It is actually a very old technology that has been around for hundreds of years.”
Joe easily compares the benefits of straw bale building to conventional techniques. The green factor is definitely key.
“Wood is becoming a rare commodity” he explains. His home uses 80% less wood than a conventional home. Unlike wood, straw is a resource that is plentiful, local and inexpensive (it comes delivered at $1.85 per bale) and is easily renewable.
Straw also provides an R value of 40+ which is of huge importance in the context of ongoing rising costs of heat and hydro. Building with straw also makes good sense when considering the actual cost of construction materials. On average a conventional home is priced at $120.00 per square foot compared to $70.00 for straw bale construction.
The money saved in the initial building costs can allow buyers to invest in other “green” systems for the home like solar panels or a peat moss septic system (which Joe has incorporated in this home). Also, aesthetically there are no design limits for straw bale building. Joe reminds us that he has “just scratched the surface “ with his home’s simple design. ”People don’t realize what can be done with it.”