There are so many things to consider when choosing a plaster for your straw bale home. I will try and give a quick outline here to get you all started on the path of inquiry. There are many decision to be made and many details to consider in those decisions. The plaster is the thing that most people will notice about your home, so make a wise and well informed decision. Below I will give some pros and cons to Clay, Lime and Cement based plasters. The decision is ultimately yours and I hope the information below will help you decide.
CLAY PLASTER (Earth plaster)
Clay plaster breathes well and can be inexpensive if the materials are available on site. The application of clay plaster is easier than conventional plasters for an inexperienced person. The plaster can be repaired easily without “burn marks” by simply misting down the affected area and reapplying the plaster. The downside of clay plaster is that it does not last as long as other plasters. Regular maintenance is a must as its durability is low. Direct water on the plaster can affect the finish negatively. It is not as strong as other plasters when considering shear and compressive strength which lessens the strength of the overall wall assembly. Finally, getting the right ratios of materials: clay and sand mostly, can be difficult and is somewhat of a science. This becomes important in the scratch coat for strength and in the finish coat for consistency of the finish appearance.
Lime plaster is one step up in strength from clay and is my top choice. It is not quite as strong as cement based plasters for compressive and shear strength, yet it is considerably stronger than clay plaster. Depending on the type of lime you choose, it can be very easy to work with. I prefer Natural Hydraulic Lime (NHL) as it is simple to use and provides a great finish. You can buy plaster at www.limes.us (be sure to let them know you heard about them from www.strawbale.com).
Lime, especially NHL is relatively flexible and can actually heal cracks on its own in some cases. Lime is very durable and can be left alone once the plaster is complete. If you want to change the color or freshen it up, you can apply a lime wash to the finish coat at any time. The biggest drawback to lime (NHL) is the price. It is quite expensive and only available from a few distributors around the World. I use it on all my buildings and I believe it is worth the cost; however, if you are on a tight budget, it may be hard to fit in.
CEMENT BASED PLASTER
Although cement plaster is very strong and has great values for both compressive and shear strength, I would not recommend using it on your straw bale home. It is true that cement based plasters and stuccos are perhaps the most commonly used material for stucco crews and this means that the cost, therefore, is usually low when compared to lime or even clay if you hire the plaster out. It is also true that the materials are readily available in most markets as are skilled crews to apply them. All of that does not outweigh the negatives of using cement based plasters on bale homes.
They do not breathe well and are likely to trap moisture within the walls, causing rotting in the bales. Another down side is the environmental impact of cement. It is a very impactful ingredient and so that must be taken into consideration when making a choice. Finally, the material is very hard and as such, has limited flexibility. As a result, cracks are more common in cement based plasters and those cracks can allow water to make its way into the walls, again causing serious damage. In my opinion, cement based plasters, even when mixed with lime, should not be used on straw bale homes.
As you can see, there are a lot of options and a lot of details to consider within each option. My plaster of choice is NHL for the exterior and interior scratch and brown coat and then a gypsum, lime, plaster of Paris (Diamond Plaster or equivalent) finish on the interior (I did not even talk about this one!). I have done clay plaster, cement based stucco, and lime plasters and have had complaints and cheers about each. As with everything in my life, I shoot for a balance and try to stay in the center of that equation.