Resurgence Of Straw Houses
CZECH REPUBLIC -- Who builds a house of straw builds a house for a lifetime. In addition to their excellent insulation, straw houses are virtually inflammable and, if properly encased in clay, they can last just as long as wooden houses. (The first straw bale houses, built in Nebraska in the mid 19th century, are still standing today.) What’s more, straw houses are relatively easy (and cheap) to build. This is why Michaela and Miroslav Mikovec decided to build one of their own. It took two years and the help of dozens of volunteers, to put up the rough structure. Now the young Czech couple is putting on the finishing touches (see Photos 1 - 4)
Eva Munk: Why did you decide to build a straw house?
Michaela and Miroslav Mikovec: We wanted to build a passive house, but it was too expensive. So I googled “passive house” and “do it yourself” and found straw houses.
EV: Tell us about the all local materials that you used.
MM: Some farmers in the next village left us a field of straw after the harvest. Luckily, it was a dry year. Sometimes it rains and all you can do is throw the straw out. We made the bales using an old straw baler we repaired. Unfortunately, most came out lopsided, so we had to retie them.
EV: What about the plaster?
MM: We got the clay from the hole for the cellar and mixed it with sand, water and shredded straw on an old plastic sheet with our feet.
EV: Why straw?
MM: The clay shrinks as it dries and cracks. The straw and sand provide flexibility and volume: the more sand, the less clay and the less shrinkage.
EV: How thick is the clay layer?
MM: It depends on how straight the wall is. You fill in the dents with 3-5 centimeters of the straw base and finish it off with a thin coat of sand and clay.
EV: Some people put manure in the plaster. Why?
MM: It helps waterproof, the fine fibers bind the plaster and the urine actually disinfects, which is quite important in a house of straw, which will mold if it gets damp.
EV: How do you deal with that?
MM: You can’t really. …We did the inside plastering in the autumn, when it was cold and it took a long time to dry; and big white circles appeared.
EV: How did you kill it?
MM: We didn’t. As long as it’s white, it’s “edible” so-to-speak, but when it turns black it starts to be harmful to your health. It went away once the wall dried.
EV: What do the neighbors say?
MM: They wonder about the risk of fire; there isn’t any because it’s all encased in several layers of clay and burns much worse than wood.
EV: So did you save any money?
MM: We saved a lot on labor with the help of the volunteers. A classic house built by a construction company would have cost twice as much.
EV: What about the insulation?
MM: This winter, when temperatures fell to -20 Celsius, we worked inside. We would heat the house, leave at 6 PM and come back the next afternoon: the temperature inside had fallen by two degrees.
Photos courtsey of Eva Munk