Tamra Hamblin Ratieta
November 18, 2015

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

As you step into a straw-bale building, you’ll notice the beautiful lines, experience warm cozy feeling and hear the quietness the insulation provides. These energy-efficient structures are catching the attention of those who are living a sustainable, DIY lifestyle, and Andrew Morrison, a leading expert in straw bale education, started the website StrawBale.com to provide people resources to construct their own straw-bale buildings. I had the opportunity to sit down with Morrison and learn more about straw bale construction and what urban dwellers should know about this building option.

Why build with straw bales? What are the benefits?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

Andrew Morrison: There are many benefits to building with straw bales. For example, buildings constructed with straw bale walls are three times as energy efficient as conventional structures due to the high R value of the wall system. That efficiency is known to save homeowners 75 percent or more on their annual heating and cooling costs. Further, they have officially tested to be three times as fire resistant during ASTM testing as a conventional wall system. Their beauty is something that is hard to describe without actually experiencing; however, suffice it to say that the thick and sculpted walls are very aesthetically pleasing.

One of my favorite parts of building with straw bales is the community that is often created in the process. There’s a lot of labor involved in building with bales, as is true of just about any natural building material, so there’s ample opportunity to work with friends and family to create your home. I teach seven-day, hands-on workshops all over the world, and the connections that are made during that week can last a lifetime.

If talking about the building itself, then I would say that the ability of the bale walls to be shaped and sculpted is my favorite part. There’s nothing like the beauty of a straw bale wall and how the natural curves and undulations bring calm and happiness to the room and the building’s owners.

Can you build with straw bales in an urban environment? If so, what kind of buildings?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

AM: Straw-bale buildings can certainly be built in urban environments. I have personally worked on several single family homes, townhomes and zero lot line residences in urban areas, and I know of at least two apartment buildings that employ straw bales, as well. There are several commercial spaces built with bales, from coffee shops to office buildings. The biggest issue is, of course, the larger footprint required to accommodate the thick walls, and on narrow lots, this can be a limiting factor for design opportunities.

How did you get started in teaching about straw bale building?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

AM: I’ve been a professional builder for nearly 20 years. Many years ago, I was building conventionally and even though I worked hard to build green—even before it was trendy to do so! I always felt that there must be a better way. Straw bale construction was that better way.

After I adopted the concept of building with bales and added my “flavor” of techniques and detailing, my wife suggested that I should do more to teach others about the process. In 2004, we launchedStrawBale.com and started offering both our instructional DVD series and hands-on workshops. I have since written a book, which is also available on the site, along with a ton of free information. I want everyone to gain value from the work I’ve done over the last 20 or so years. My goal is to bring this amazing building practice to as many people as possible.

If more people built with straw bales, how would it affect the environment?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

AM: Building with bales could do so much for the environment, as the need for heating and cooling resources is greatly reduced in these buildings. The amount of energy saved is impressive and more and more necessary as we move forward. Another advantage is the fact that the straw itself is a waste material from farming. It is currently either burnt, thrown away, or rotted by flooding the agricultural fields—not a good use of our precious water. By using this material to build natural and energy-efficient structures, we’re not only improving environmental quality on the front end, but also reducing energy consumption at the point of use.

Are there any reasons not to build with straw bales?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

AM: The biggest enemy of straw bale construction is damage caused from moisture. If a potential client lives in a very humid area, where the climate does not have a significant drying season, then straw-bale construction may not be the right choice. Rain is not a big deal, as it can be designed out of the equation. Humidity, however, can be an issue. Most areas are acceptable, though tropical areas are great.

What are the best ways to get a permit to build a straw-bale building?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

AM: Permitting straw bale structures is getting easier each year. In fact, the 2015 International Residential Code, which is used in every state, now has a section providing for the construction of straw-bale homes. This means there is now a code for straw bale homes in every state! The folks who worked tirelessly on getting the code adopted by the International Code Council, the body that oversees all code documents in the United States, are now working to get straw-bale construction into the commercial codes.

What are some of your favorite straw bale buildings?

Q&A With Straw-Bale Builder Andrew Morrison 

Tamra Hamblin Ratieta

It’s hard to pick a favorite straw bale building, as there are so many beautiful options to choose from. That said, I have some favorites that I have built and other favorites that I have only seen. I have built several beautiful homes by designer Chris Keefe from Organicforms Design, and I also truly enjoy the work of David Arkin and Annie Tilt of Arkin Tilt Architects.

 



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