Is straw a better building material for homes in Britain?

This year, a structure in the sleepy West Yorkshire town of Todmorden will be covered in straw imported from Lithuania. In order to improve insulation, Barbara Jones and her coworkers at Todmorden Learning Centre and Community Hub have devised a plan to cover the college, which was constructed in the 1950s, with more than 1,600 square meters of straw-filled panels. Expert in natural building materials Ms. Jones says, “We’re going to make it a showcase.” EcoCocon, a Slovakian company that has Ms. Jones on staff as a technical sales consultant, will supply the panels.

 

Essentially, these timber-framed panels are a little more sophisticated version of the basic straw bales that some environmentally conscious builders have been using for decades. Each panel is around 3-400mm thick and includes a quantity of chopped straw. Although identical products have been available for years and are sold by other companies, EcoCocon is now focusing on larger-scale projects due to the growing demand for sustainability and insulation. Whether straw, a millennium-old building material, can scale up to fulfill 21st-century objectives is the challenge at hand.

 

Rather short straw pieces are packed in panel systems at precisely the correct density—roughly 110 kg per meter cubed—so that the volume of air inside has an insulating effect. According to Ms. Jones, this also offers fire protection. In contrast, loose straw is known to catch fire. The panels can be made with the straw slightly projecting, which is another useful feature. Consider the pin art toys you press your palm or face into to leave an impression; they can be pushed up against an uneven wall and yet produce a tight seal.

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