By Murray Johnson
Straw bale houses, once the domain of experimental builders on bush blocks, are now mainstream.
Julie and Robert Green are building a straw bale home in the traditionally conservative suburb of Ivanhoe.
Julie, an orthoptist, and Robert, who runs an advertising agency, are an environmentally conscious couple who decided to extend their philosophy to housing.
They opted for straw bale after attending a seminar by Castlemaine alternative building guru Gary Nicholl.
When they started reading, and visited some straw bale houses, they were sold on the material's thermal properties.
"They stay within 14 and 23 degrees without heating or cooling _ even in the snow or desert,'' Mrs Green said.
"We didn't want a wasteful house.
"The aesthetics are appealing too. It's not a harsh line. Everything is softened with undulations and deep 500mm window sills,'' Mrs Green said.
"The fact that straw bale houses are made by recycling a waste product is absolutely fabulous too,'' she said.
Stubble from wheat, rice, oats or barley, otherwise burnt into greenhouse gas, is used for straw bale houses.
Gary Nicholl, of Strawbale Australia in Newstead, has just built a straw bale mansion for a landscape architect in Flowerdale, and a winery in Geelong.
"People are starting to wake up to the sound-proofing and thermal qualities of straw bale,'' he said.
"Its rate of growth is shocking the socks off everybody.''
Apart from his own work, Mr Nicholl said he knew of a dozen straw bale houses now underway in Victoria.
Some contact him for information, others need help with specialised tradesmen, and others hire Mr Nicholl's $55,000 concrete spray rendering equipment to finish their walls.
This can reduce a rendering job from 10 weeks to five days, he said.
Mr Nicholl is a cabinet maker by trade but did astint working with street kids in the 1980s.
His involvement with the straw bale boom in Victoria began as a low income housing research project.
His investigations revealed that America was rediscovering straw bale methods used by settlers in Nebraska where there was a shortage of trees.
Now straw bale is being revived as a low cost, environmentally friendly system which empowers people to construct their own homes.
Mr Nicholl said: "I didn't think much of it at the time, but it got a hold of me and I haven't been able to put it down since.
"It took us 10 years to get our first buildingpermit.
"They just laughed at first. It was like hitting your head against a brick wall.
"But privatisation (of building approvals) changed everything,'' Mr Nicholl said.
"Once people could get permits it took off,'' hesaid.
Like mud brick in the 1970s straw bale had to convince authorities it was safe.
Most people use "post and beam'' construction...putting up a load-bearing frame of steel or timber, then filling in the walls with straw.
Mr Nicholl said people were often surprised that straw bale houses had excellent fire safety ratings.
"A well-built commercial building in Melbourne has a 30-minute fire rating. Straw bale (encased in cement) has a four hour rating,'' Mr Nicholl said.
Regular house walls have an R3.5 insulation rating. "With straw bale we start with R10 before we put our render on.''
Computer simulations by Energy Efficiency Victoria confirm straw bale houses can be up to 20 per cent more efficient than traditional homes.
Two years ago Mr Nicholl put a small advertisement in the Castlemaine Mail and 137 people turned out to a public meeting and information night.
Now he is developing recycled steel frames with designs and techniques to interface with the mainstream Australian building industry.
People can build simple structures quickly and cheaply if they do all the work themselves.
But if they employ tradesmen a straw bale house costs about the same as a brick veneer, or a little bit more, he said.
Mr Nicholl's Strawbale Australia runs training for owner builders.
Participants pay $25 a day for WorkCover insurance, and learn on real building sites.