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A Straw-Bale House Proves Its Might in Modern Style

In Hamilton, an innovative home ready to withstand huffing, puffing and all the elements

By Elizabeth Tanaka
Photography by Nicolas Koff

From the outside, K-House looks thoroughly contemporary. Inside, though, is one of the oldest insulation materials: straw bales. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Not all straw-bale homes resemble their adobe-style predecessor. In fact, as K-House shows, today’s builds have the potential to be any modernist’s dream house – all they need is some thoughtful design.

Charred-cedar cladding – called shou-sugi-ban, an ancient Japanese technique – on the lower volume repels water and protects the walls from insects and decay.

“I compare K-House to a Tesla,” architect Nicolas Koff says of his first residential project, located just outside Hamilton – the first of its kind in the area. “It takes something we know and love, with its luxurious exterior, but modifies it from the inside.” So, naturally, he began with the fortification of the home’s core. Though it’s still an uncommon choice, straw-bale architecture is not a new idea. Straw houses date back to the Paleolithic era and straw-bale construction grew in popularity in North America after the invention of the mechanical hay-baler in the 1850s. Walls made of straw bales provide excellent insulation, are inexpensive and give an agricultural waste product new life. And, unlike traditional straw-bale walls, which are roughly plastered by hand, K-House’s are layered with magnesium oxide board and rain screens (to let water drain and evaporate) and then finished with a breathable but hydrophobic layer of plaster.

Built-in wood framing gave the straw panels load-bearing ability, which allowed for fewer walls, making the homeowners’ open-concept dreams a reality.

In the nearly eight-metre-tall atrium, a perforated-steel staircase by Cobalt Fabrication connects the two storeys. Skylights by Artistic; Noguchi pendants available at Quasi Modo.

K-House’s airy, open feel is most noticeable in the all-white atrium, which efficiently connects the single-and two-storey volumes of the home. A mesh stair rail is visually light, while large skylights illuminate the space – a smart design move that saves on electricity. In the kitchen and living area, large picture windows function in a similar way, making the most of energy saving cross ventilation while flooding the rooms with sunlight. They also draw the eye to the lush natural views.

Inline Fiberglass windows filter breezes through the home during the warmer months, and keep it sealed in the winter. Caesarstone-topped custom kitchen by Bendt; PEFC-certified oak flooring from Moncer.

Links to its surroundings don’t stop there. In addition to peppering the property with native plants like sedge, ferns and pawpaw, Koff added a low-maintenance rooftop garden of grasses and meadow flowers to attract pollinators. It’s a restrained, harmonious approach that perfectly complements the clean-lined facade. With its contemporary roofline and blackened-cedar cladding, K-House makes a subtle but striking first impression. It also makes one of the strongest arguments yet for embracing alternative materials. Not bad for the fabled house of straw.


BY THE NUMBERS

  • 40.64Width, in centimetres, of each prefabricated straw-bale wall, fully assembled.
  • 36: The number of solar panels on K-House’s reflective, galvanized-aluminum roof.
  • R-40 to R-50: The estimated R-value, or insulation potential, of compressed straw-bale walls.
  • 40-70Total energy savings, depending on whether fireplaces or the gas furnace are used in the winter.

THE INSIDE STORY

  • The Pros: Wood-framed, compact bales are load-bearing, noise-cancelling, fire-resistant and formaldehyde-free, as well as affordable and easily sourced in Canada. The final cost was only slightly more than a common build.
  • The Cons: Careful planning is a must as specialized labour is required for straw-bale construction and building permits can be a challenge. Rot and moisture damage are only issues if the walls are installed improperly.

Originally published in Issue 3, 2016 as Hittin’ the Hay.


Categories: Spaces

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