The Three Little Pigs taught us to be skeptical of straw houses. But, since the early 1900’s, humans have shown there’s a lot more to building with straw than the old fairytale suggests.
Straw bale homes are works of art with a uniquely southwestern feel. They’re often built with sculptural reliefs and alcoves carved into their thick, earthy walls.
Straw is not to be confused with the green hay used for livestock feed. It grows in tall stalks of grain, like wheat and rice. A single straw bale is composed of thousands of golden stalks, which individually trap air, creating excellent insulation to keep houses cool – or warm.
Straw has more lignin in its cell walls than many types of wood. Lignin, the companion to cellulose, is particularly difficult to biodegrade - so with the proper protection from moisture, straw can actually outlive wood. It’s recognized as a sustainable building material because it’s a renewable resource and doesn’t take decades to grow like trees do.
Even though straw has been used for centuries as a building material on the Colorado Plateau, the adoption of building codes for stick-frame structures has made it more difficult to construct modern straw bale homes. If a type of construction isn’t recognized by code, it can become a challenge to finance and permit the project.
In 2016, Coconino County became the first jurisdiction in northern Arizona to adopt a code specific to straw bale construction. It streamlined the process for residents, allowing load-bearing walls to be built from straw. Seems the Three Little Pigs underestimated the endurance of these distinctly southwestern homes.
This Earth Note was written by Lauren Bernas and produced by KNAU as part of a student collaboration with the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.