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House of straw
The first little pig will probably be jealous of the home that Pip and Lisa Akins are building.
The West Kelowna couple are in the midst of creating the District of West Kelowna’s first straw bale house.
Pip Akins said the idea came to life after mulling over ways to build a relatively green home.
“We were interested in making it as environmentally friendly as we could. My brother-in-law has done some courses in straw bale building over the years and he told us about it,” said Akins.
“You end up with really thick walls. The building itself should be pretty energy efficient. You also get that high R-value with a good material.”
Akins said that they have remained fairly conventional with the design, sticking to mostly 90-degree corners; however, there will be slight bulges from the straw that will make it look quite interesting.
The Akins have had a large number of volunteers—mostly friends and family—help them out with the project. The effort has been hugely helpful, according to Akins.
“The actual building of the straw bale walls doesn’t take a lot of skill, it’s something you can learn in 10 or 20 minutes. But it is extremely labour intensive.
“Having volunteers available really helped this process along.”
The process has been one that has had its challenges along the way.
“Building with straw, we’ve learned, is a bit more time-consuming than conventional (building): Partly because it literally takes more time and partly because there aren’t a lot of people out there who know how to do it.”
Another challenge that the Akins ran into was getting the initial permit.
“This was the first straw bale building that they’ve had to deal with in the District of West Kelowna. Essentially it’s a new thing that people aren’t familiar with.
“It took a lot of legwork on our part, getting our inspector’s information and getting them in touch with other districts that had more experience. It was a bit of a special process that we had to do to accomplish that.”
All the hard work may pay off as soon as the new homeowners get their first energy bill.
“We’re really interested to see how our energy bills look as the seasons go on. That will be a big part of the advantage. Our expectation is that we will have low energy bills.
“We won’t have air conditioning in the house and we’re thinking that our heating costs aren’t going to be extraordinary, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
Akins said that there are some misconceptions when it comes to building with straw.
“Straw is apparently excellent with fires because it doesn’t really burn properly, it just kind of smolders. (Some say) that it’s going to increase the likelihood of rodents. That’s not true unless the straw hasn’t been processed properly by the farmers.”
Akins isn’t sure if the concept of building with straw is practical for new businesses or city homes due to lost square footage.
“We have space. We figured out how much floor space we want, then we can just make the walls bigger. So we have a bigger footprint, which we can afford.
“If you live on a city lot, chances are you’re going to lose square footage by going with straw. We just decided what square footage we needed, then built out.”
Lisa Akins said that their Albertan builder is an expert in building with straw bales. The process is something that may become more popular in the future.
“He’s built about 100 structures in the States as well as here,” said Lisa.
“California has written straw bale into their code: It’s moving in that direction, but it’s slower up here.”
After all the research and hard work by the Akins and countless volunteers, it’s probably safe to say that no wolf—nor any type of West Kelowna weather—will blow this house down.