Crestone Eagle, April 2005:
big picture: Strawbale trends and defining "Eco-sensible"
by Sigi Koko
I frequently give presentations to educate homeowners, building
officials, developers, and architects on how to see building
design with green-colored glasses. In the past, I would briefly
mention strawbale construction as what I call a “super
green” example of how to create resource efficient,
energy conserving, beautiful structures. In the past, I would
get a lot of blank stares. But in the last couple years, and
particularly in the past year, I’ve noticed a significant
Now those same audiences specifically request to hear about
strawbale and other natural building techniques. Now I experience
overt curiosity, thoughtful and informed questions that manage
not to mention the big bad wolf, and a general attitude that
natural building techniques are viable methods of construction.
The obstacle I notice is uncertainty on how to build long
lasting structures in any climactic condition.
I’ve seen this same trend in getting building permits.
Being on the East coast and designing in a wet/humid climate
poses challenges for strawbale construction. The notion is
that “strawbale is great, but it will only work in the
Southwest where it’s dry”. When I’m submitting
for a building permit, I always schedule a ‘pre-submittal’
meeting with the permitting office.
In the past, these meetings were long and full of basic descriptions
of what strawbale is and how I propose to build with it in
our climate. Now the building officials have heard of strawbale
and the questions focus on specific ‘how to’ details.
Generally there is a positive attitude toward strawbale. (I
even had one building official call me monthly to check when
construction was starting because he didn’t want to
miss the bale raising.) What they want is reassurance that
construction details will appropriately address the moisture
issues we have in this climate.
The final trend is that strawbale is moving to urban areas
and is no longer just considered viable for houses. Even in
the Washington DC area (not known for its progressiveness),
upcoming strawbale projects include a school, a community-based
health care facility, and several house additions.
Recently I gave a presentation at the Washington DC Green
Festival. Following is a summary of what I covered, as well
as some simple and inexpensive solutions to gain multiple
benefits to health, ecological impact, quality of life, and
resource use (including water and energy). I’ve also
included some of my favorite resources on each topic.
What does it mean to build
There are five categories to consider in designing/creating
a well-rounded “green” building:
• Site Development
• Water Conservation
• Energy Efficiency
• Health & Well-being
• Materials & Resources
It is the composite of all of these topics that makes a building
“green”, not simply addressing a single issue.
For example, if only energy efficiency is addressed, the result
is an energy-efficient building, but not a “green building”.
For each category, the general focus is to “reduce,
reuse, recycle”, and I would add “renewable”.
This means reducing resource use and using renewable resources,
as well as reducing negative environmental impacts. It means
reusing resources and allowing elements to perform double-duty.
And it means recycling everything back to where it started,
just like nature does.
The beauty of many natural building techniques is being able
to achieve multiple environmental benefits with a single effort.
Strawbale is a great example, because it creates a super energy
efficient building envelope using a non-toxic, rapidly renewable
farming waste product that is generally harvested locally.
Generally the emphasis on “green building” is
on the structure itself, however, our landscapes also have
enormous impact on local ecosystems. The largest impact is
dealing with storm water and water usage. Sustainable sites
encourage natural water filtration and reduce overall use
of potable water by mimicking natural systems. The shift is
thinking about storm water as a resource instead of as a burden.
This means allowing water to stay on the site where it is
filtered and recharges groundwater tables. This is accomplished
• reducing impervious surfaces
• slowing down water flows so they have longer to “soak
• collecting rainwater
• eliminating potential pollutants (including litter,
pesticides, and fertilizers)
Eliminating potable water use for landscaping should then
be easy, since the rainwater will do this job for you. This
means, of course, using native and climate-adapted plants
in the landscaping.
What can you do?
• Eliminate irrigation (except collected rainwater
or gray water discharge).
• Use only native, non-invasive, drought-resistant plant
species for landscaping.
• Reduce impervious surfaces (including roofs). The
goal is to keep all rainwater on-site and to mimic natural
• Collect rainwater.
• Do not use pesticides or fertilizers.
• Create rain gardens or swales to collect and slow
Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison ISBN 0-908228-08-2
Water is one of our most squandered resources and is often
referred to as “the oil of the future”. The reason
water is wasted when we look at how it is commonly used. Drinking
quality water is generally used to flush toilets and water
lawns, and all wastewater is treated alike, regardless if
it is lightly soiled soapy water from a sink or if it is flush
water from a toilet. This means all water gets processed with
maximum intensity. Again we can look to natural systems for
the ideal model. Potable water resources are best used where
it is reasonable that a person may ingest water, such as drinking
fountains, sink faucets, and showers. Non-potable uses of
water, such as irrigation and toilet flushing, can use filtered
gray water or collected rainwater.
A composting toilet eliminates water used for toilet flushing;
creates nutrient-rich compost.
What can you do?
• Eliminate use of potable water for irrigation
and toilet flushing.
• Install water-efficient appliances (Energy Star).
• Select ultra low-flow fixtures (showerheads, faucets)
and non-water using toilets.
• Install aerators on faucets.
• Use captured rainwater or filtered gray water for
Texas Guide to Rainwater Harvesting www.twdb.state.tx.us/publications/reports/RainHarv.pdf
There is no doubt that energy conservation receives the lion’s
share of attention relating to creating “ecologically
sensitive” buildings, and for good reason. If there’s
any single initiative with multiple benefits, it’s reducing
energy consumption and focusing on renewable energy sources
of power. Power plants commonly use non-renewable resources,
contribute to air pollution, ozone depletion, and “greenhouse
effect”, and they use and pollute significant amounts
of fresh water.
There are 3 areas to focus on when reducing energy use. First
is to focus on energy conservation, by using passive heating
and cooling, maximum insulation in walls and roof, using sunlight
instead of electrical lighting, and installing energy efficient
appliances and equipment. The second strategy is to produce
any energy you use with renewable energy systems. And finally
is to reduce the reliance on energy-intensive forms of transportation.
Example: Passive Solar
• Reduces or eliminates energy use for heating and
What can you do?
• Minimize need for car use.
• Design for solar orientation.
• Create an efficient building envelope for your climate.
• Make use of daylight and natural ventilation—windows
on two sides of every room.
• Generate your own energy and use net-metering where
possible to eliminate batteries.
• Install efficient appliances and HVAC systems (Energy
The Solar House by Dan Chiras, ISBN 193149812-1
Materials & Resources
Choices of building materials have great potential to effect
both health and resources use. Healthy materials are those
that do not threaten human health and do not negatively impact
natural ecosystems. Sustainable materials can be defined as
renewable or regenerative and acquisitioned without ecological
damage and used at a rate that does not exceed the natural
rate of replenishment.
The overall impact of any given materials can be determined
through “life cycle analysis”, which reviews the
entire life of a material, from getting the raw materials,
through manufacturing and shipping, and through its normal
life span of being used. The ideal is to create a “closed-loop”
model where any material that is removed can be reused, remanufactured,
or recycled back into a useful new product. If you question
the healthfulness of a particular product, you can get an
MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) from the manufacturer (often
Creates a super energy-efficient building envelope; uses
local, non-toxic, biodegradable, rapidly renewable waste material.
What can you do?
Reduce: lower total burden
• create smaller, compact plans
• use structural elements as finishes
• optimize material use
Reuse: longer life span
• incorporate salvaged materials
• design for dismantle and reuse
• create flexible spaces
Renew: replenished by natural systems
• use agriculture-based products
• use certified sustainably harvested wood
Recycle: waste becomes a resource
• use products with high post-consumer recycled content
• avoid products with ozone depleting potential or global
• use non-toxic building & cleaning products
• avoid products that support pathogens or bio-contaminants
(such as mold/mildew, fungus, bacteria)
• create details that protect materials from water damage
Local: less transportation energy
• give preference to locally manufactured materials
• durable: longer life span
• use high quality, durable products
• use materials that can be partially replaced or easily
• protect materials from premature damage
Post-use: avoid disposal
• select materials that can be salvaged, reused, recycled
(with no down-cycling)
• select materials that are biodegradable.
www.realgoods.com (especially their Solar Living Sourcebook)
Health & Well being
The trend toward energy-efficient buildings with tighter
(less leaky) building envelopes has had one challenging outcome:
potentially trapping harmful contaminants inside. Indoor pollutants
include combustion gases, airborne chemicals, particulates,
and microbes (such as mold or dust mites). Indoor air pollution
has been linked to asthma, chronic fatigue, burning eyes,
dry coughs, headaches, dizziness, rashes, and temporary loss
Pollutants can come from carpeting, cabinets, vinyl products,
cleaning products, candles, and air-fresheners. Many of the
persistent pollutants come from daily activities, so I recommend
starting with items you use regularly (soaps & cleaners,
fragrances, etc.) and making sure these are non-toxic and
Example: Natural Plasters and Paints
Uses local, non-toxic readily-available materials.
What Can You Do?
• Use maintenance products that are non-toxic,
biodegradable, and zero-VOC
• Control moisture to prevent mold and mildew growth
• Use interior plants that filter pollutants from air
• Use outside air for any combustion and vent directly
Prescriptions for a Healthy House by Paula Baker, Erica Elliott,
and John Banta ISBN 1-56690-355-6
Clean & Green by Annie Berthold-Bond ISBN 1-886101-01-9
Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan ISBN 0-671-53595-1
My favorite comment during a presentation is “This
all sounds like common sense.” That’s my goal,
actually. That people walk away thinking that “going
green” just makes sense. I strongly believe that the
single obstacle is education. (That’s my goal in giving
presentations.) I believe that informed consumers will demand
healthful and “eco-sensible” options, and that
demand will bring natural building more and more into the
Sigi Koko is the founding principal of Down to Earth,
a design and consulting firm specializing in natural building.
She has obtained construction permits for several strawbale
buildings in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. She has
a Masters of Architecture as well as in-the-field construction
experience, and has developed written specifications and many
architectural details related to strawbale and cob construction.
Contact: 220 W. Langhorne Avenue, Bethlehem, PA 18017; 610-868-6350
or 202-302-3055, www.buildnaturally.com, or email@example.com.
This article first appeared in The Last Straw Journal, issue