How old is the technique of making straw bales? (Passive solar in the 1600s)

As some people here may know, I am very interested in passive-solar construction, and have helped out with the building of several such houses. These houses have thick massive walls to store heat during the cold weather, large windows to let sunlight in and provide that heat, and insulation on the outside of the walls to trap the heat.

The houses I’ve worked on are built with rammed earth and concrete walls, rock-wool insulation (Roxul is a popular brand), wooden framing, and a plastic vapour barrier on the inside of the insulation to present water vapour moving outward into colder areas and condensing inside the insulation.

These houses are very efficient at trapping heat in the winter. The house my friends live in needs no furnace in a climate where winter temperatures often never go above -20C for weeks on end.

We think of these kinds of design as ‘something from the sixties’, when ‘environmentalism’ became popular. However, I am sure that techniques to capture solar heat have been used before… I remember seeing an article in the old Coevolution Quarterly about solar hot-water heaters in California in the 1920s.

I began to wonder how far back such passive-solar designs could have been used, without plastics or rock-wool insulation or similar oil-age industrial manufactures.

The greatest technical necessity for passive-solar heating would seem to be window glass. There is the example of Hardwick Hall (“more window than wall”), which was built just before 1600 by “one of the richest women in England”.

Imagine building a passive-solar house around 1600 using those windows. You could build walls of stone, use pitch or tar on the outside to provide a vapour barrier, then insulate. But insulate with what?

The obvious answer would seem to be straw bale. But aren’t those rectangular bales of straw a product of mechanised harvesting? Was straw baled before mechanisation, and were those bales usable as insulation? I have an impression that straw was stacked in pre-machine days, but not baled.

So, my questions:[ul][]When did people start to bale straw?[]If straw bales are unavailable, is there another form of straw bundling that would work as insulation? []If no straw bales are availble, would it be possible to thatch vertical stone walls, or does thatching require a slope? []I am aware of cob, its ancient use in England, and its insulative characteristics. Is it resistant to the type of internal water migration tthat vapour barriers are intended to prevent? It has to breathe, does it not?[/ul]

I can’t find a very good webpage to illustrate this right now, but the Japanese used straw insulation for thousands of years without mechanization. (Traditional construction is mentioned here.) Just an anecdote, I know, but seven years ago I saw a house with straw stuffed in the walls being demolished in Gifu prefecture. I’d say straw insulation was the norm until relatively recently in Japan.

I volunteer at a “living history” farm which replicates 1890’s farm practices. At harvest time, although we used a gasoline-powered thresher, it just spit out the straw in a big pile, and we had to bale it ourselves. We used a hand-powered box-and-screw device–you’d cram the straw into the box, turn the screw repeatedly to screw down the lid as much as possible and compress the bale, and then tie a rope around it.

So baling, at the very least, predates motor-powered baling devices. Whether it pre-dates all forms of farm mechanization, I couldn’t say. I suspect that it does–the advantages of compression, ease of transport, and ease of sale are pretty compelling.

Interesting. I bet that technique postdates inexpensive binder twine or rope, though. Would someone in Renaissance times have been able to afford the amounts of rope needed to bale the straw? Was rope made by spinning, sort of like thread?

Welllll . . . they also have a rope-maker at the farm, although they point out that by the 1890’s, it wasn’t used that much any more, because manufactured, store-bought rope was cheaper.

If you’re really interested, e-mail me and I’ll put you in touch with the paid staff at the farm–these guys are tremendously knowledgeable about Nineteenth Century agriculture, and if anybody would know the “history of baling”, they would. They probably can’t take you all the way back to the Renaissance, but I suspect things didn’t change much between the Renaissance and the early Nineteenth Century.

That would be greatly appreciated–I’ll email when I get home tonight. I’d be fascinated to talk with them.

I think that loose straw would be a better insulation than the tightly compressed bales that are produced by modern equipment (or even last century’s manual ‘balers’). So you might be better off using loose straw, just gathered up after threshing and stuffed (not too tightly) into the walls.

The bales are useful when you want them as part of the structure – they are fairly stable, and can be used for building. So you can actually make walls out of straw bales, and they will be a sturdy structure. Here in the Midwest, pioneers did the same with sod – they made walls and whole houses out of sod. An effective way to use existing, available materials for building.

Rectangular bales are definitely a product of mechanical harvesting; prior to that, cereal crops would have been cut by a bloke with a scythe, then gathered up into sheaves (bundles), which would then be piled together into stooks (conical heaps), ready for threshing. After threshing, the straw would (I think) be carted loose to a barn, or heaped up outside and given a semi-waterproof temporary roof of thatch.

Yes, this is what I was trying to remember. I had a vague picture in my mind, but I didn’t know any of the names.

Bales are pretty new. It’s the tight-packed, sturdily-bound bales that make load-bearing construction with straw possible. In the past, it was an adjunct material in construction and might also be used as an insulation material. Thatched roofs are surprisingly good insulators.

Like Mangetout said, in the past straw would usually be gathered into conical sheaves, loosely tied with a cord braided from some pieces of straw, and left to dry before being ricked. Harvest season is over now, but I walked by several fields where the harvesting is done mostly by hand, and it’s still done this way by those farmers. Some of it is used, along with a framework of bamboo, to make a temporary roof to protect the harvested rice before it’s gathered and threshed.

Straw was used in construction just about everywhere at various times in history. Clay bricks usually had straw as a binder. Wattle and daub might use straw cord for the wall weaving. Japanese houses had bamboo or other local woody plant wattle walls plastered with a straw and mud combination. This page has a few pictures of what those walls look like. The irregularly shaped windows are actually sculpted holes in the wall, showing the lath that underlies the fully-plastered part. They were either planned as the plastering was done, or the slurry was knocked out to shape and smoothed after the builder decided the room needed another window.

Rice straw in Japan was used for a lot more than building. Hats, rain coats, and snow garments, including boots were made out of straw. Somewhere, I’ve got a picture of this girl in Nagano all decked out in a straw snow coat, hat, and boots. Straw protection gear wasn’t just for the poor, all classes wore it.

Well, after some more discussion–Freddy the Pig was kind enough to connect me with people at the ‘living-history’ farm–and it appears that bales were a product of the mid to late nineteenth century.

I was researching wall construction (rammed earth, cob, and pisé-de-terre) a few months ago, and found books going back to the 1920s, which had references going back to the 1820s, which mentioned sources going back to Roman times. Cob is straw and mud, has insulative qualities, and has been used in England for over 500 years.

I am now wondering whether you can thatch a wall. Any thatchers on the Dope?

It looks like I’m going to have to hit the Reference Library here in Toronto a lot more.

Thanks, everyone!

Not very well.

If you set the straw thatch vertically, it tends to fall down to the bottom of the wall, leaving the top part of the wall very thin or even bare. You can reduce this by tying the thatch tightly into bundles, but that 1) reduces the insulation value of the thatch, and 2) uses a lot more effort, and relatively expensive materials (the cord or rope). And you only make a thatched wall if you can’t afford anything better.

Also, thatch set vertically is very lacking in structural strength.

If you set the thatch horizontally, the bundles tend to compress over time, so you walls become shorter and the ceiling gets lower and lower. Also, this too requires either tying the thatch into bundles, or having frequent wood poles to hold it into place.

If you have straw available, you are better off mixing it with mud or clay to form cob or wattle type walls. That works much better for walls.

Don’t you need modern sealed double-glazing for this sort of thing though? Having experienced even century-old windows, I would expect a nightmarish amount of draughts and drips from all this Elizabethan glazing.

To the best of my knowledge cob is basically mud, rocks and straw, and is not desperately moisture-resistant. Keep most of the rain off it, and you will be fine but water will migrate through it in the same way as through brick, concrete and so on. It is somewhat notorious for it’s tendency to disintegrate and/or liquefy when subjected to modern injection treatments in an attempt to damp-proof it.

Is hay and straw the same thing? Hay has the potential to autoignite if it gets damp.

Hay is leaves, straw is stems. I think.

That’s a good question. It is possible to calculate when condensation will occur on windows, given interior and exterior conditions. I don’t see why we couldn’t build wooden-framed windows with double glazing, but I’m not sure whether the wondows’ effectivness relies on the space between being actually sealed.

The books about cob that I found at the Toronto Reference Library specifically stated that cob needs to ‘breathe’; there were pictures of cob walls that had failed from internal moisture buildup after they were sealed by plaster.

I’ll have to dig up some of the references.

Hay is grass/alfalfa/clover cut green and then cured. Straw is the stalks and leaves of cereal crops (essentially grass) left over after the seeds have been harvested. The chief difference is that straw has been cut after the grass has ripened rather than while it is still green.

Not strictly. It is primarily in locales with aseasonal or autumn dominant rainfall patterns that hay is made from green grass. In climates with Mediterranean or summer rainfall patterns it is normal for hay to be made from cured (read “dry and dead”) standing grass.

The primary difference between straw and hay is simply that hay includes all of the plant, including a lot of leaf. Straw is just what it sounds like: the stalk.


Rioting asylum seekers broke out of their cells in Britain’s biggest detention centre this week - because they are made of straw.

The interior walls at the centre in Harmondsworth, West London, became soggy when the sprinkler system was set off by fires.

This allowed hundreds of illegal immigrants to punch their way through the walls and go on the rampage, causing millions of pounds of damage.

None of the steel doors or the brick exterior walls were affected.

So, my questions:[ul][li]When did people start to bale straw?[]If straw bales are unavailable, is there another form of straw bundling that would work as insulation? []If no straw bales are availble, would it be possible to thatch vertical stone walls, or does thatching require a slope? []I am aware of cob, its ancient use in England, and its insulative characteristics. Is it resistant to the type of internal water migration tthat vapour barriers are intended to prevent? It has to breathe, does it not?[][/ul][/li][/QUOTE]
//\The stationary baler or hay press was invented in the 1850’s and did not become popular until the 1870’s. The “pick up” baler or square baler was replaced by the round baler around the 1940’s.

HAY HAY HEY HAY Baled, bailed, & rolled. What more could u ask for?