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U.S. Strawbale Construction:
A Brief History



Because sod houses, typical for settler dwellings elsewhere, could not stand on the soils of Nebraska, early pioneers used bales of prairie grass for construction material. When the prairie-grass-bale houses withstood even the extreme winters of Nebraska, the settlers quickly adopted the constructions as permanent homes. The invention of steam-powered balers in Nebraska in the late 1800s made straw easy to harvest and compress into bound bales

Between the early 1900s and 1950s, straw bale was a much-used building method. However, in the 1950s, when mass-produced construction materials began to emerge, the older method lost popularity and was virtually unknown until its reintroduction in the early 1970s.

Strawbale houses are of two kinds. In the Nebraska style, straw walls carry the weight of the roof. In a post-and-beam construction, a wood frame supports the roof and other loads, and straw is in-fill for insulation. In both types, the bales sit on a concrete or stone slab to prevent moisture seepage. Assembly--skewering the bales on rods to form solid walls--can be done by unskilled workers.

Five years ago the first permit for a load-bearing straw bale home was granted in Tucson, Arizona, opening a wide variety of construction possibilities. The cost-effective, energy-efficient procedure is said to be easily mastered by anyone with the time and money to pursue it.

The cost can range as low as $5-$20 per square foot, for a home that uses owner/builder labor and salvaged or scavenged material, or as high as $80 or more per square foot for a structure entirely contractor built and customized.