Build a straw house that no huffing, puffing can bring down

Posted Monday, Jan. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints



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FORT WORTH -- Tim Evans is banking on the current oil boom in Texas.

But he has nothing to do with drilling.

Evans is a home builder and believes his product can help ease the housing woes associated with boom towns.

"There is a tremendous need for worker housing in these new oil [fields] in Texas. Hotels won't build because they don't know how long the workers will be there," said Evans, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Fort Worth-based Stramit USA, a company that uses wheat straw as one of its most important building materials. "We build these cabins called 'man camps.' Two men could stay in a cabin and be comfortable. It's quiet and safe. So we are getting a lot of interest in areas like Seguin," where the oil industry is booming.

You can see one of these man camps at the Fort Worth Stock Show, where Evans has a model set up along the street just outside the Watt Arena. It is a 12-by-24 foot space with a living area, kitchen and full bathroom that has been nicely furnished and accented with mounted game.

Displays of small sheds and hunting cabins are a common sight at the Stock Show. But what makes Evans' different is one of its most important building materials -- a layer of insulation made of straw.

"Wheat straw and rye straw are abundant, especially in Texas, which has over 100 million acres of wheat planted every year. We use the part of the harvest that nobody wants," Evans said.

So Stramit USA buys the farmers' leftovers and feeds it into a 300-foot long machine that sorts, compresses and, ultimately, cooks the straw at 400 degrees, turning it into boards that can be used for construction and insulation.

"It performs as well as fiberglass or foam, but it comes from the ground. And it's quiet. Wheat straw has a property called STC (sound transmission coefficient) that rates very high. That's why it is so quiet in here," said Evans, sitting in the model at the Stock Show.

The idea is not new. Its origins go back 70 years, when a wheat farmer in Sweden who was preparing to burn off his straw decided there had to be a better way. He started combining the straw with mud to make bricks, and others built on that concept until a product that came be called CAF (compressed agricultural fiber) emerged, Evans said.

The man camp on display at the Stock Show is built with CAF supported with steel and pine. But CAF can also be placed between structural insulated panels to make commercial buildings, Evans said.

Another surprising advantage of CAF is that, despite being made of straw, it is fire resistant.

"It so compressed that there is no oxygen in there," said Evans.

The cost of building with CAF is about the same as other materials.

"In this economy, everybody wants to be green, but nobody is willing to pay a premium to be green," said Evans. "We're pretty much cost neutral. It is not a premium."

The model on display at the Stock Show sells for $29,000, which includes the refrigerator, stove and shower facilities, he said.

Evans is presenting his product at the Stock Show because he feels the event puts him in touch the right audience.

"[The Stock Show] draws a lot of ranchers, farmers and outdoor enthusiasts, and here's a product that is using agriculture as its base to erect these cabins or buildings that you can work out of, or hunt out of, or use to just enjoy the outdoors. We have found that this audience is incredibly receptive to the idea of using an agricultural waste product that nobody has any use for and upcycling it into a value-added proposition.

"And it is a socially responsible way of building. My partners are ranchers. They are not tree huggers. Nor am I a tree hugger. But we agree that good stewardship of the land and resources of this planet just makes sense," Evans said.

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