Straw Bales, Stackpole, And Used Car Tires

Today's cost of building materials and our society's growing mountains of landfill have resulted in some remarkable and innovative housing solutions, thanks to modern technology.

The range of materials and methods used to build houses over the centuries includes just about everything man could lay his hands on or devise. Animal skins, thatch, mud, sod, dung, discarded bottles and aluminum cans are among them. In the mountains of northern China, hand-shaped stone, usually granite, is still a favored material-these houses can last more than a thousand years.

In many parts of the world, wood, concrete, and brick have been the mainstays of housing in the 20th century, but as the times are changing, so are the materials builders are incorporating into construction.

Change is being driven by two major factors: steadily increasing cost of conventional building materials and steadily increasing height of our landfill mountains. Enterprising engineers in one Canadian province have, indeed, transformed a small mountain of waste into a thriving ski resort.

Brought to bear on problems of excess--often dangerous--waste, technology has provided some remarkable solutions. For example, carpeting made from plastic soda pop containers is now available. Sturdier recycled plastics are being used to manufacture decking, fencing, playground equipment, furniture, and even the ubiquitous Blue Boxes used in many cities for recyclables collection.

Recycled plastics may soon be showing up as eavestroughing, pipes and conduit, siding, window frames, perhaps interior wall paneling, subflooring, and subroofing. Not only does this save non-renewable resources, it exploits the durability of plastic, an aspect that previously made plastic a curse in landfills.

Another item long the bane of the disposal industry is discarded rubber tires-by the estimate of one major recycler, 245 million every year. At first a very small niche industry started, manufacturing the tires into sandals, purses, and other accessories. But if every American wore rubber tire sandals and carried rubber tire purses the problem still wouldn't be solved.

Technology may be coming to the rescue. Experiments continue to find ways to "crumb" discarded tires for use as a roadbuilding material. Past research and into production are some housing materials that may are making a serious dent in the tire mountains.

Roofing slates made from 100% recycled car tires and re-engineered polymers are now on the market in the United States and Canada. The product's life expectancy far exceeds that of asphalt shingles; the likelihood of these blowing off in a high wind is much less; and they are reported to be easier to apply. Add to that their increased insulation value and consumer appeal-they come in a variety of colors; and this product may have a long and successful future.

At least one company in the United States has applied technology to manufacture flooring from used tires. The company used more than four million used tires last year, and forecasts an annual sales growth rate of 30%. To date this company has recycled fifty million tires.

In efforts to save money on construction materials and labor, satisfy local building codes, and provide homeowners with long-term energy and maintenance savings, some builders have begun to combine the old with the new. With new straw bale housing techniques, the proverbial grass shack is coming into its own.

Best guess is that straw bale housing started in 19th century Nebraska when a shortage of trees and American ingenuity came together to provide protection from the Midwest's vicious winters. Bales were stacked and tied together to form walls. Later these walls were plastered over and the houses became permanent. Some, now more than 100 years old, still stand.

The basics haven't changed much over the years. The inner walls-straw bales-are coated on the exterior with one to one and a half inches of stucco and on the interior with plaster or other material. Insulation value is exceptional. So is fire resistance and structural stability. The thick walls also provide design opportunities-window seats, space for planters, and other decorative touches. Just about anyone with a level, a plumb bob, and muscle can build these walls and do so quickly.

Proponents of straw bale housing point to other advantages as well. For the homeowner, reduced heating and cooling costs, including initial outlay for equipment, elimination of potentially toxic materials and long-term off-gassing. For the farmer, a new profit center for what previously was usually a waste by-product. For the broader environment, air pollution is reduced, forest resources are saved, and local community building capacity is strengthened. Habitat for Humanity is a leading builder of straw bale housing because of its economy and other benefits.

Straw bale construction originated because of lack of trees. Stackpole construction originated because of lack of uniform-sized larger trees. Stackpole offers ease of construction, high insulation, low maintenance values, versatility, economy, and durability, just like straw bale construction. The difference is that stackpole can use scrub trees normally wasted when land is cleared for agriculture or clear cut by forestry companies. Diameter of the logs does not matter in stackpole construction.

For stackpole, logs are usually cut into twelve to twenty inch pieces and literally stacked like cordwood in a backyard woodpile. The exposed cut ends are stacked even and spaces between the log pieces are filled as the logs are stacked. In early times the fill was often clay or even high density peat moss. In modern house construction, the fill is usually concrete, followed by an exterior stucco coating.

Of course hardwoods are best for stackpole housing but in northern Canada where the tundra meets the pine tree line, softwood stackpole houses built a century ago still stand.

Straw bale walls, rubber roofs, pop can siding, pop bottle patio blocks and carpets, margarine container sandboxes, tricycles, and swing/slide sets, and perhaps soon to come, recycled plastic house foundations and piers: housing engineers are responding magnificently to contemporary challenges, in part by looking to the past.

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