straw-homes2JANE SLADE discovers that straw houses make ideal affordable homes for retirees

Paul Chatterton, a geography lecturer at Leeds University, spent a lifetime pondering how to make housing sustainable and affordable before setting up the 20-home Lilac co-housing project in Leeds (pictured above).

Using the design method of building neighbourliness – he created groups of private houses made of straw around a community centre housing a laundry, tool shop and dining room where residents can congregate. Although not designed as a retirement village – it would work very well as one.

The only oddity is that all the homes are made of straw. Paul, who has two sons with his GP partner Natasha, wanted somewhere to bring up his family where there would be a strong sense of community and where houses would be affordable. He used straw for three reasons:

1. Straw has good environmental credentials, carbon neutral.
2. Straw offers very good insulation – 70 per cent reduction in heating bills.
3. The straw bales made it easier for him and fellow neighbours to design their own houses and  assist in the build.
“Basically you build a wooden box and fill it with straw – like lego bricks,” he says. The houses comprise four-bedroom two-storey homes as well as one bedroom flats. straw-homes

“We were building a neighbourhood,” he adds. “We divided up the cost of the project and allocated equity shares to each member – everyone pays 35 per cent of their net income – so it operates like a mutual home ownership society.

“Each member buys equity shares on a 20-year lease and the cooperative is the freeholder.”
His challenge is to replicate this model – he is setting up an umbrella organization in Leeds to build 1,000 homes in 10 years.

“There is enough straw in the north of England to build 200,000 homes a year,” he argues. And now straw homes qualify for standard mortgages there is no reason why they shouldn’t be rolled out like traditional build homes.

straw-homes1“The houses are full of character – they have a lovely sound and smell,” he adds.

“They are healthy too with no chemicals so perfect for older people who may have health issues.

“The walls are 33cm  thick which is the depth of a gale and so very fuel efficient – our gas bills are just £200 a year.”

The houses were built using ModCell’s prefabricated straw bale panels. Modcell supplied the main envelope of the building including the walls as well as a straw bale roof system.

They are cheaper to build too – a four bed house cost £180,000 – 17 per cent saving on traditional building cost.

Paul’s cooperative also ensures the homes stay affordable as the equity is pegged to national wages and not houses prices, so deters speculators.

“The downside is that buyers won’t make a fortune from their homes but it keeps them affordable for future generations which is the major principal. It is a great concept for over 55s.”

Charlie Luxton, sustainable architectural designer from More 4’s ‘Building the Dream’ said:

“I’m pretty positive that there is a future for straw build because it’s part of the mix of techniques that are currently being used on the market. It will not be the main way of building, but it will definitely be considered as a viable option as it is locking away carbon emissions.

“Construction with straw is a financially viable option and it is a sustainably wise route to go down. We need to start learning to build in different ways and to explore other alternatives. Whether you are building family homes or properties for retirees straw is an ideal material.”