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Phoenix Forward magazine

Living in a straw house isn’t just a fairy tale

Straw house

You might think straw houses only exist in “The Three Little Pigs.” But environmental engineer and University of Phoenix online instructor David Barraza discovered that a straw bale home is an inexpensive, eco-friendly option for the real world.

Barraza, who teaches in the environmental science program, owned land without natural gas access near Tucson, Arizona, where summer temperatures can reach 110 degrees or more. He wanted to build an affordable home for his family of seven that would not rack up huge electric bills.

“I decided to find a low-cost way of improving the insulation value of the exterior walls to help keep utility costs low,” explains Barraza, who holds a doctorate in management and organizational leadership. He found a newspaper article about straw bale construction, used for more than a century by homeowners in frigid states like Nebraska.

“In Wyoming, straw bale homes have withstood severe weather conditions,” Barraza points out. By the mid-1990s, University of Arizona researchers discovered that the construction method also could weather arid conditions in the Southwest.

“Straw bales provide an excellent thermal mass for insulating exterior walls against harsh cold winters, and [researchers] thought this renewable resource could be used the same way to keep homes cool in southern Arizona,” Barraza says. He notes that straw is also readily available in Arizona; often discarded or burned by farmers and ranchers, it’s a low-cost building material.

A straw bale home is an inexpensive, eco-friendly option for the real world.

Not only that, the nature of straw bale construction methods means these homes also are relatively inexpensive to build and own, Barraza emphasizes.

“You can often recruit [eco-conscious] volunteers willing to learn straw bale construction,” lowering labor costs, he says. “A typical custom home can cost [at least] $75 to $150 per square foot. My wife and I were able to build [ours] for $50 per square foot.”

Meanwhile, Barraza’s monthly utility bills are many times lower than his neighbors’. In the summer, he says, “our electric bill on a 4,200-square-foot home averages about $140 a month,” versus the $500 monthly bill for owners of a nearby 1,800-square-foot home. “The biggest payoff for our straw bale home,” he adds, “is the high energy efficiency.”

Building homes with a renewable resource like straw has other benefits, Barraza points out. “It reduces the need to burn waste straw in agricultural communities,” he says, “[which] improves air quality.”

Tightly packed straw bales also are denser than lumber, which Barraza says adds structural integrity while being naturally resistant to termites and rodents. And unlike flammable loose straw, straw bale density reduces oxygen penetration within the walls, helping protect against fires.

The thick, uneven walls of stucco straw bale homes also have visual appeal that pairs well with the desert landscape, Barraza says, explaining that the characteristic deep windowsills also double as shelf space for his family’s art, plants and pottery.

While Pima County, Arizona, building codes allow straw bale homes, Barraza recommends checking local regulations before building one. Once you get the go-ahead, he says, “as long as there is a suitable source of straw bales in the area … straw bale homes have few limitations.”

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