A winner by a whisker

For hundreds of years, people have used straw to build their homes. But could it be the building material of the future as well as that of the past, asks Julia Stuart
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Sometimes when Norita Clesham is at home, and the wind is blowing strong enough, she can smell the straw. The fresh, wholesome odour comes not from outside - her house overlooks scrubby bogs and pine forests - but from the walls that surround her. For Norita's two-storey, three bedroom house in rural County Mayo is made not of bricks, but of straw bales, the first and only of its type in Europe. Not since a certain Mr BB Wolf exhaled to devastating effect has such confidence been shown in building a house out of straw.

There is, of course, not a bristle of the stuff in sight. The plump walls have been rendered with lime inside and out and passing motorists have finally stopped slamming on their brakes to gawp at the yellow, whiskery spectacle.

Building with straw bales is nothing new. In the 19th century, when settlers arrived on the plains of Nebraska to find there was no wood or stone to build with, they used the waste from their crops while they waited for timber to arrive on the wagon trains. The straw kept them so warm in the winter and cool the following summer, they continued using it until 1940, when concrete took over. It is not known how many houses were built, but about 12 from the early 20th century still remain.

In the Eighties, an article on one of the houses appeared in an American permaculture magazine. It caused such a stir among environmentalists that the tradition was taken up again. There is now believed to be at least one straw bale building in each state. In 1995, Barbara Jones, a British roofer and carpenter, was given a Churchill Fellowship to study the method in America, which she brought back here. Her company, Amazon Nails - Strawbale Futures, is based in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.

There are around 100 straw bale buildings in the British Isles. Most of those in England are studios, workshops or guest accommodation, with around 20 houses. Ireland has more dwellings as it has a stronger self-build tradition. It is little wonder that interest in straw as a building material is increasing. As insulation, it is extremely effective (straw bale health clinics in Mongolia have reported a 75 per cent reduction in heating bills over the winter). You don't need previous building experience to work with it and the bales can be fashioned easily into attractive shapes, such as circles.

Building with straw can also be considerably cheaper if you get your friends or volunteers - Barbara has a list of 300 - to help out. (The straw itself is only about five per cent cheaper than traditional materials.)

Once erected, the straw bales are too dense to be a fire risk, says Barbara. Straw does not attract more rats and mice than cavity walls (which rodents actually prefer for the leg room) and it doesn't rot unless it is sitting in water. "I expect the buildings to last more than 100 years," says Barbara, adding that none of her projects has been refused planning permission.

Norita Clesham opted for a home made of straw after helping a friend build one. "I loved the idea of growing my own house, the material being renewable and not having to be skilled in terms of carpentry," she says. The house was to be loadbearing, meaning that the walls would take the weight of the roof. (The more nervous tend to use a wooden frame). It would become Europe's first two-storey load-bearing dwelling.

Norita decided on a spiral shape, like a nautilus shell. "I wanted to live in a dwelling that was in keeping with nature and use nature as an architect. I was never attracted to straight lines and squares. And curves are just so easy and soft," she says. What she didn't realise, however, was that such a complicated shape would mean that everything would take at least four times as long. The project started in July 2000 and took three summers to complete.

After consulting an architect, Norita produced a rough design, which he then drew up. Barbara did the construction drawings. Curiously, the land Norita was building on, which belongs to her parents, had always been called Straw Field.

After marking out the shape of the house, Norita built an 18in limestone wall straight onto the ground, into which 12in vertical steel bars were fixed, two for every bale. Natural slate was laid on top of the wall to act as a damp course and the first layer of bales were then impaled onto the steel bars. When the bales were seven layers high, the wall plate - a timber structure that incorporated the floor joists - was pegged down onto them with more hazel rods. Five more layers of bales were stacked up and pegged down and another wall plate, on which the roof was to sit, was then added.

The roof was an enormous endeavour because of its varying pitch of 14 to 45 degrees, and in total the house took around five months to complete. The walls were then given a close trim and plastered with a mixture of mud and straw, and then lime, which enables them to breathe. The inside walls are regular stud walls.

For most of the time, the construction work was done by Norita and a couple of friends. Much to Norita's relief, on about a dozen occasions Barbara and her colleague and a team of volunteers arrived stayed for a fortnight of intensive activity. Twice, a group of Dutch women drove over in a minibus to help, funding their trip by selling pancakes in Dam Square, Amsterdam. Other volunteers came from Sweden, Germany and Denmark. In the end, more than 100 people helped build the house.

"There was a great buzz, great energy, especially when the weather was good," says Norita, who, during construction, rented a nearby house. "Just seeing people's generosity was extraordinary. It was a life-giving way to build and a great experience." There was, however, considerable emotional cost. "A lot of things didn't work out," she admits. "It was a real up and down experience and at times I regretted having started it. There's something about a house that challenges part of you."

There are, of course, no regrets now. The result is a tranquil, characterful house. The chubby walls give a sense of cosiness, yet the rooms feel airy and the light floods in. Sitting by Norita's peat fire in the living room, the shape of an orange segment, we can see out of almost three windows.

There is still work to be done on the inside. Doors have still to be fitted and furniture will also have to be made to sit against the curved walls. There are still no kitchen appliances. But, for the moment, Norita is having a rest. She has yet to come up with a name for the house. At one stage, she jokes, it could easily have been "Blood, Sweat and Tears". "After doing this I felt I could do anything," she says.

Amazon Nails - Strawbale Futures, 0845 4582173, www.strawbalefutures.org.uk