Straw Bale in the 4th Grade Classroom

I received an email today from a curriculum writer for a fourth grade class in Kansas. The idea is to write a curriculum that introduces the class to straw bale construction as an economic and environmental asset. I have attached the email below because I think it is so cool that fourth graders will be exposed to this! She also asked a series of questions which I have attached with the email along with my answers to them.

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I am developing a unit on shelter for 4th grade students in Kansas. I need some information on straw bale building and don’t want to create errors as a result of my lack of knowledge. I am hoping you have time to respond to a few questions. A very brief background history: The purpose of my unit is to teach archeology so that students will have a passion for protecting archaeological resources. My first priority in design is to make sure my unit meets state curriculum standards. I found my entry point through the economics standards.

So, in short, students will examine the archeology of the Wichita grass house and the archeology of the African American dugout, look at the use of natural materials to build energy efficient houses and then bring that knowledge forward in to the present, and examine houses we could build today using local resources.

Students will use their economic standards to create a business that promotes energy efficient homes. I thought since Kansas is an agriculture state, that access to affordable and abundant straw would allow students to think about promoting straw bale houses. The enduring understanding that I want students to have at the end of this is: Building shelters using local resources protects the environment and saves money. Here are my questions so far:

1. Does building with straw bale protect the environment? Why or why not?

Answer: It does for several reasons. Straw is a waste product of the grain trade and as such is disposed of annually. In the U.S. alone, we burn over 200 million tons of straw each year. The particulate matter and Carbon Dioxide released into the environment is very unhealthy. By using the straw instead of burning it, we improve air quality. Secondly, once installed in the home, they provide excellent insulation, reducing the home owner’s reliance on mechanical cooling and heating. The energy saved directly translates into environmental impact.

2. What other ways does a straw bale save money besides being able to build yourself and the energy savings?

Answer: If you are building yourself and using a load bearing assembly, there are no lumber costs for the walls except for the window and door bucks. If building a post and beam, then the savings are mostly in the efficiency of the home.

3. Is it reasonable to think that a farmer could make money raising straw for homes?

Answer: Absolutely. Like I said earlier, many farmers simply burn the straw to get rid of it. If they baled it and sold it for $4 per bale or so (based on market conditions) they would be turning a profit for their waste product. Consider that the burning of a field still takes fuel and labor. The added fuel to run the equipment would be offset by the profit of the bales.

4. Do you know of other alternative kinds of building materials that could be used locally in Kansas (I realize you are from Oregon and might not be able to answer this)?

Answer: Cob (mixed clay, sand and straw) is an alternative building material although it is very labor intensive and is not covered in the building codes like straw bale is. Rammed Earth, also labor intensive and not covered, is another option still used. One can build a house out of almost anything: tires, old magazines, etc. I am not sure I would endorse that though.

5. Do you know any straw bale builders in Kansas?

Answer: I do not. You might contact Sven Erik Alstrom. He is an architect who works with straw bale and will likely know of local builders. His number is 785.749.1018 (alstrom@sbcglobal.net).

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