House wrap often creates more damage than it prevents in straw bale houses. Why then are they required in straw bale building codes? The answer is not complicated; however, the impact of vapor barriers in straw bale houses is.
For straw bale homes, the push has always been to provide the bale walls with a vapor permeable finish to allow any water vapor to escape the building. In most cases, this translates into an earth based plaster like clay or lime. These plasters have the ability to release vapor and thus allow the bales to dry out when the weather permits. Other plasters that are synthetic or cement based have limited ability to transfer the moisture away from the bales. In some cases, again depending on the weather or climate, the bales end up soaking up moisture from the environment which can cause decay in the walls.
So if it is true that the bales need to breathe and that the plaster that is applied over the surface can influence the vapor transfer away from the bales, why would anyone use a house wrap at all? So here is the simple answer: because that is what people do on conventional homes. Because much of the code language for straw bale buildings is based on codes for conventional construction, some things just never get tested before they become requirements.
I have built many straw bale homes and many conventional homes. In both cases, I find items within the code that really do not make sense for the individual situation; however, the code is not designed to address individual situations but rather large, blanket situations. As a result, I have had to fight for what I believe and then provide some type of proof or performance guarantee from an engineer. Although expensive, an engineer’s stamp is cheaper than a failed wall system.
I do not use house wrap on my bale walls unless I really have to. In some cases, where the bales may be exposed to rain splash or snow drifts, I may utilize the material. In dry climates, I do not use the material at all because I believe the ability for the building to release moisture is more important than the attempt to keep it out. The picture above shows an example of a house wrap in the form of roofing felt applied to the bottom courses of bales.
In this case, the home inspector required it on the exposed portion of a wall where wind driven rain rain was a concern. I was sure to NOT wrap the felt under the bales. This allows any moisture to drain free of the bales into the gravel at the base of the wall. Do not confuse the need for a house wrap material with the need for roofing felt over wood exposed to plaster. They are very different and the plaster protection is definitely needed to avoid cracks in the finish. The stripes on the wall of roofing felt are wood members covered before plastering.
I have learned over the years that moisture WILL get in to your house one way or another. Believing otherwise is like believing I can stop it from raining when I want a sunny day. In light of that, it makes more sense to build so that moisture can escape once it gets in. This is a simple answer to a complicated question. Indeed, there are many people and companies out there that spend countless hours and currency researching the impact of house wrap on construction projects and the results of those studies point to the inclusion of vapor barriers in conventional construction practices. Because there is limited information about the impact of those barriers on bale homes, we, as builders, are left to use our common sense and what information we can find.
One thing we know for sure is that moisture can cause irreparable damage to a straw bale house. Knowing this, it is imperative that you do whatever you can to protect your walls from water AND moisture vapor build up. Exactly how you do that will depend largely on your climate, your construction materials, your mechanical systems, and your design.
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