News Brief

Ten Years Later: Strawbale in the Building Codes

This 3,500 ft2 (325 m2) strawbale residence in the Santa Cruz Mountains by DSA Architect of Berkeley, California, includes a two-story entrance hall, an art gallery, and a central courtyard overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Domestic hot water and auxiliary space heating are provided by a combined solar thermal system; a photovoltaic system supplies electricity.

Photo: Daniel Smith
Ten years ago,

Environmental Building News (EBN) reported on the first building codes for strawbale construction (see

EBN

Vol. 5, No. 1). The State of Nevada had recently passed a mandate requiring local jurisdictions to permit strawbale buildings, and California had approved voluntary guidelines that could be adopted at the local level. On January 1, 1996, the County of Napa, California, adopted that state’s strawbale building guidelines, becoming the first government body to officially adopt a strawbale building code. The next day, the City of Tucson and County of Pima, Arizona, adopted one that had been in development there for more than two years (and upon which the California guidelines, along with most subsequent strawbale codes, were based). Later that month the State of New Mexico approved a draft of Standards for Non-Loadbearing Baled Straw Construction, which was adopted into its state building code in 1997. Over the next half-dozen years, strawbale codes were adopted in many California jurisdictions, as well as in parts of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Nebraska, and the entire state of Oregon.

The alternative materials and methods clause in the model codes, and now in the International Code Council’s International Building Code® (IBC), has always been an open door to strawbale, but “having it specifically included in the codes gives it much more credibility in many people’s eyes—including building officials, lenders, and the insurance industry,” Martin Hammer, a Berkeley, California, architect who has been working with strawbale codes since 2001, told

EBN. The move toward codification does seem to have improved the perceived legitimacy of strawbale. Getting permitted is much less difficult than it once was, even for the significant percentage of permitted strawbale structures built in code-enforced areas that have no specific codes for strawbale in place.

Chris Magwood, who leads the Sustainable Design and Construction course at Fleming College in Haliburton, Ontario, and has authored two books about strawbale building, told

EBN that “code activity in the U.S. has made it much easier to get approvals here in Canada,“ where no strawbale codes exist. At one point, according to Magwood, the Ontario Straw Bale Building Coalition considered creating a strawbale code for its area but decided that the cost and the effort weren’t justified. Over one hundred strawbale structures, including urban projects, have been built in the Ontario area in recent years without significant permitting difficulties.

Strawbale buildings are also going up in areas of the U.S. without enforced building codes (and certainly some small number are sneaked in under the radar of local officials). Most are probably examples of reasonably good craftsmanship, and a few may represent the very best strawbale has to offer, but the overall performance and serviceable lifespan of some of them is anybody’s guess. “I think codes serve a purpose—maybe simply to help monitor good construction versus bad construction,” says Joyce Coppinger, director of the Green Prairie Foundation for Sustainability in Lincoln, Nebraska, publisher of

The Last Straw.

Hammer concurs. “The worst that happens with no code is that failures get built,” he says, stating that the benefits of a well-written code outweigh the freedoms of building in a vacuum. Since failures often get more attention than successes, he senses the danger of a skewed perception. “When there’s no code or guidelines, people invent things—not always very well. However, innovation has always been one of the strengths of strawbale building, so we need a code that still allows that while addressing preventable disasters.”

Some have argued that codification is a double-edged sword, particularly when the regulated item is neither proprietary nor sponsored by any industry; a prescriptive code can ultimately mandate less-than-best practices for decades despite initial good intentions. The issue of climate-applicability is also a concern—as Coppinger notes, “California’s code is good . . . but is it appropriate for Massachusetts?”

Hammer thinks both issues can be handled appropriately in a single, universal document but concedes, “Even with a very clear and explicit provision that other techniques or methods can be permitted to satisfy the intent, if something’s in black and white, it creates inertia.” The next step, he believes, is to incorporate a carefully crafted set of performance and prescriptive minimum standards for strawbale construction into the IBC as an appendix. An appendix, rather than an amendment of the code itself, would fall somewhere between nothing and a mandatory provision—a common groundwork that could be more readily adapted by local jurisdictions throughout the country to their unique conditions. In the meantime, Hammer is working on a strawbale building code requested by the State of California to replace its guidelines and to reflect recent testing, experience, and understanding.

The Spring 2006 issue of

The Last Straw (No. 53) will include a thorough review of strawbale building codes, as well as an extensive report on recent strawbale testing.

For more information:

Martin Hammer, Architect

Berkeley, California

510-525-0525

mfhammer@pacbell.net

The Last Straw

Lincoln, Nebraska

402-483-5135

thelaststraw@thelaststraw.orgwww.thelaststraw.org

Published February 1, 2006

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