The short straw: bio-based construction

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The Architectural Review

An abundance of straw offers an ecological alternative to the supremacy of concrete in French construction

In the face of the climate crisis, the construction sector must urgently offer alternatives to the hegemony of concrete. Cement production is responsible for about eight per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and consumes large amounts of increasingly rare resources: energy, water, sand and aggregates. Wood, straw, hemp, reed or bamboo, in combination with earth or stone for their high thermal inertia, offer virtuous alternatives. The new French environmental regulations (RE2020) position natural materials as a priority for a sustainable future in construction, in both housing and public buildings.

Straw-bale construction was developed in the 1880s by settlers on the North Central Plains of the United States. In the absence of traditional building materials, they stacked hay and then straw bales to build the load-bearing walls of their homes, implementing the so-called ‘Nebraska technique’. The oldest known existing wood-frame building with straw insulation is the Maison Feuillette in Montargis, France. Built in 1920, this small 110m2 house with a gable roof is a symbol of the durability of this technique. It was designed by the engineer Émile Feuillette with the aim of creating a home that was economical and quick to build. In this period of postwar reconstruction, materials were scarce. He therefore used small timber sections for the load-bearing framework of oak and poplar lattice beams, and filled them with straw bales for insulation. The layout of the wooden structure avoided cutting the bales to save material and time. He built a few other houses with this principle, but the supremacy of concrete in the following decades marginalised vernacular materials such as wood, straw, stone and earth. In 2013, the Réseau Français de la Construction Paille (RFCP) crowdfunded to buy the house to preserve and restore it. After the renovation, it has set up headquarters there.


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