The house that straw built

"If only the little pig had plastered his straw walls…"

Outside view of the Armstrong's straw house.
Outside view of the Armstrong's straw house.


The phrase is written on the business card of Deirdre McGahern, owner of Straworks Inc., a company which incorporates straw bales into home design. And she is working on her biggest straw bale project to date, a 4,400-square-foot house just north of Port Hope.

Owned by Linda and Tony Armstrong, the house consists of a main entrance - a round tower reaching 30 feet in height - centred between living quarters with walls composed of straw bales.

And there's nothing particularly special about the straw bales used for construction. The only

Tony and Linda Armstrong discuss their project during an open house.
Tony and Linda Armstrong discuss their project during an open house.

difference is that they are packed a little tighter. In fact, the bales for this project come from a farmer across the road from the Armstrong's property.

Once installed, the bales are notched, cut and shaped to build solid, dense walls of straw. This work happens after the carpentry and electrical is installed, but before the windows go in and the plaster goes on.

But why use straw bales?

According to McGahern, the cost is similar to other housing materials and the R-value of a straw bale wall ranges from 30 to 40 - in the category of a super-insulated wall.

A common question when it comes to straw is the concern for rodents getting in.

Once plastered, a straw bale wall is too dense for mice to burrow in, explained McGahern. Straw bales also absorb moisture and release it through the outside wall. In addition, straw bales are fire resistant (baled too tight to support combustion).

Internal wall with straw bales.
Internal wall with straw bales.

In order to ease installation, the length and width of the building is usually divisible by three feet (a bale length). The height of the walls also correspond to the height of bales being stacked. And window sizes and placement are designed so bales fit around them.

For homeowner Tony Armstrong, a lot of planning went into the project before getting started.

"There have been no surprises," explained Armstrong. "We have invested in technology and the process has been smooth."

And while using bales of straw may be a unique way to build, it's only the beginning at the Armstrong home.

Timber for the porch, living room, dining and kitchen is comprised of Eastern White Pine which comes from their own forests. The house is heated by a pellet boiler. The main floor uses compressed earth blocks made locally by Henry Weirsma of The Fifth Wind. The blocks are laid on top of recycled insulation which will help moderate the house's temperature. There is also in-floor heating, along with the use of grey water (from showers and sinks). This water is filtered to flush toilets and water their gardens.

Deirdre MCGahern
Deirdre MCGahern

The house project is part of a larger plan for the Armstrong family. Their 120-acre property is being developed as a cooperative farm and education centre.

Known as Headwaters, the property will offer cooking classes, trails and tours, art studios, yoga and even garden plots.

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