• Retro-Fitting Sustainably with Straw Bales and Climate Change Building

    Posted on April 29, 2014 by in Architecture, Environment, Healthy Building, Homesteading, Self-Sufficiency
    click image to enlarge  Straw Bale Wall, Madoc Performing Arts Centre (2008), Project Architect, Ingrid Cryns

    click image to enlargeStraw Bale Wall, Madoc Performing Arts Centre (2008), Project Architect, Ingrid Cryns

    Is your home resilient and adaptable to extreme weather challenges due to the increasing climate changes? Have you considered building or retro-fitting sustainably with straw bales? Are you wondering if where you live will begin to be more impacted by floods, high winds, earthquakes or extreme heat or cold? Over the past several months, many areas around the world are experiencing dramatic fluctuations of temperature changes & the resulting weather impacts to their immediate environment. You may think this is only a temporary aberration, but I am here to tell you today, that this is only the beginning of more intense and increasing fluctuations. Is your home able to withstand and be resilient or adaptable enough to these extreme weather & earth challenges? Have you considered sustainably building or retro-fitting your property with straw bales? Here are some quick suggestions that I would start to consider, if I were you;

    a.  If you currently live in a flood plain area and you have a basement, your sump pump will be running all the time. Consider the higher electrical costs to keep this going. If you can’t move, then at least get a solar panel to offset the electrical costs for this and further needs, as electrical utilities will be increasing in costs everywhere.
    b.  Design the finishes of your basement so that it will allow the flow of water to go through and not damage the materials so that they get moldy. There are a variety of options that you can use, such as; metal or plastic studs with Mineral wool (Roxul is one brand) insulation and screw in wood paneling, a basement modular system, insulated concrete forms (ICF), poured concrete or masonry blocks with a waterproof paint. My personal favorite basement wall system are wood chip composite blocks (Duorsil is one brand) that can be painted, or have a stud wall with insulation added with an interior cladding. Don’t use wood studs or drywall as they encourage mold growth.
    c.  Floors can be ceramic tile but the best solution is to make sure the foundation details are designed properly and that water is draining away from the building, especially where the gutters are. Or – better yet, I highly recommend that you simply move out of the areas that tend to flood ASAP! Or at least buy something that doesn’t have a basement and build something above grade as an accessory building for your basement needs, well beyond the flood plains, highest estimated level in your area.

    click image to enlarge

    click image to enlarge


    a. Increase your insulation in your walls, roof and basements or foundations. At least 2x the current building code levels is a good start. For example in Ontario, exterior walls are required to be R21 by code. I suggest that you build them at R40 now. Roofs are R40 by code and should be R 80 – 100. Also, it should be built air tight with extreme sealing at all possible openings. This will also reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy & costs required to keep it heated or cooled as well.
    b. Weather will be fluctuating more often now between hot & cold. An exterior wall system that can slow this down and mitigate these increasing swings of temperature will need to have more insulation and more thermal mass. Clay plaster walls on top of straw bales, light straw clay mix, or wood chip composite blocks are an amazing solution to moderate the heat, cold or humidity in indoor spaces for up to 2 or 3 days. You can open the windows at night in the summer, let the cold air in and have it cool all day long. You have to experience this to really understand how great it is. And, as a side effect, it also improves the indoor air quality as well a absorbs odours or bad smells.
    a. A straw bale or light straw clay mix wall has the best high wind impact wind resistance – better than brick & wood framing. Its density and lateral strength due to the plaster on both sides, make it a superior system. They last for hundreds of years and with the low technology aspect are easily repairable by any homeowner!
    b. Roof overhangs can be detailed to break easily so as to not take the whole roof off, or the risk can be mitigated by adding a soffit design on a deep angle to meet the wall so the wind has little to hold onto.
    a. Again, a straw bale wall can be designed with special connectors at the bottom that will allow it greater flexibility to sway and move with moderate earthquake movements. And, due to the plaster on both sides and the monolithic nature of the straw bale mass, the walls can be designed to be able to shake laterally with minor damage.

    The Conclusion? Straw bale buildings, new, retrofit or as additions are often the best answer for exterior wall systems in our increasing weather & earth instability! And if you must live with a basement, be sure and design it very, very carefully for water flow, expecting it to flood at some point. An underground storm shelter or cold cellar is best separated from the house and only used occasionally or in emergencies.

    I welcome your feedback! You can connect with me via email or telephone, leave a comment right here on the site, or click the contact tab at the bottom of the screen if you are reading this post on the website.

    If you want to learn more about Natural Building Design or how to live more Self-Sufficiently, please see our Events page for upcoming online classes and workshops!


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