I'm posting this here mostly because I need a place to put this stuff. Apologies for this readers not interested in green building.
If on the other hand you want to see what the controversy is about, read the links in the email.
But here's another link that I omitted:
Sent: Monday, August 16, 2010 3:12 PM
To: Mick Womersley
Subject: straw bale house?
I saw your faculty profile page for Unity whilst searching the web for strawbale houses in Maine. I'm in Bangor for a few days visiting my Mum and she's been talking about building a strawbale house. I looked for places that we might be able to see an actual example and I saw some pictures of your place and it look awesome! Any chance we could swing by and take a look? I also saw you're into farming, so would love to see what you've got going on there. I'm from San Diego and my greywater system makes my tomatoes and fruit trees rock; it'd be interesting to see what challenges you've got out here; obviously not a water shortage!
XXXX, our bale house suffered quite badly the last few years when we let a family we knew that were close to homeless stay there and they turned out to be less than capable of taking care of themselves, let alone our former home.
I just got the house back this summer and have been waiting for the remaining parent to go clean up the trash they have laying around there and get the last of her stuff out. Sadly, she didn't do it, despite multiple promises, and now I have a major clean-up job to do, before we move in a friend who needs a place to live and who we hope is more responsible.
Understandably, I'm not happy about the extra work, and even if the place was fit to be seen, I don't have time to show it because my spare time for the next few weeks is going to be spent fixing the place up..
In addition, we've been counseling folk against building with straw in Maine for nearly six years now, since we carefully analyzed the problems, costs and benefits. I suppose we should take the older material down, or find a way to present it all in the same place and sequentially. You can read some of this newer material on our web sites at
Reading this material over before sending it to you, there are a few caveats, since this material too is now out of date. I continue to stand behind the comparative analysis of the bale versus recycled cellulose and foam board insulation. The recycled material remains much cheaper and likely has a lower or at least comparable ecological footprint to bale in this region. It also remains much easier to insure.
I have, however, become interested in woolen insulation since becoming a sheep farmer. This material is now more widely used in Britain than bale, and sheep are an under-utilized agricultural resource in the US, particularly in this region of Maine where we can use them to very good advantage to clear ground and mow grass and weeds instead of using power equipment. Wool can be protected against insects and housefire much better than bale can, and is far less difficult to insure if you use one of the commercial (tested) products now available.
To be frank, if you built a home using a contractor and conventional lumber with woolen insulation, I doubt the insurance company would even ask what kind of insulation you used. They don't go into it that deeply, although they generally won't insure a bale house. We had to get special insurance for the one we have. But the contractor would want to use a tested product before standing behind the house, and the wool is tested.
I no longer wish for a Skystream turbine, since my wind power research now shows that these can only be cost effective (ie: pay for themselves) on Class 5 wind sites in Maine, whereas our farm house is Class 2.
Bale is still a better material in other ecosystems, and might be just fine in southern California. I wouldn't know since I've never lived there.
Generally speaking, the best thing to do if you want a cheap, ecologically sensitive home is to use the locally available materials and mimic traditional architecture where it has evolved over generations with agriculture and other economic activity. Here in Maine timber, clay, stone and aggregate are traditional, massively abundant, and by-products of local agriculture and proper land management, while straw is not a byproduct of any agricultural system in our part of Maine. You have to drive almost 150 miles to get to where we have an abundant straw crop, whereas I can get abundant field stone, cheap hemlock lumber, and aggregate within three miles of my farmhouse. When we planned our bale house we used lots of local lumber and recycled lumber, but made the mistake of thinking bale would be more ecological. It turned out to be expensive and only distantly available, and hard to insure.
You might find that some other material is appropriate to SoCal, possibly adobe, but I'd be checking building codes and insurance standards in your area before I made a significant investment if I were you. Fireproofing might be an important issue there, too.
Here wildfire is less worrisome, but still important, but we find we can use sheep to keep the "defensible space" around our home clear without running the normal brush hogs and weed whackers. They clear all the weeds and smaller brush, while we take the bigger stuff for firewood. After a couple years of working this process, our farmhouse is now protected against wind drops and wildfire, thanks to sheep and renewable heat systems. Go figure. That was a surprise, but obvious when you think about it. The fleece is a by-product. We don't have an insulation mill making tested fleece insulation yet in Maine, but I think we should have one, given all the other benefits of sheep.
Above all, I'd say, step back, question assumptions, try to think about it objectively: what are the best materials and architectural style for your eco-region? Is bale attractive because it's the best material, or is it because there's a buzz about bale?