Community Straw Bale Building

Bryn Thomas - Brighton Permaculture Trust
Wednesday, 4th March 2015

Brighton Permaculture Trust need a place to hold their Scrumping Project - processing apples after Apple Day. So with the local community, they are building The Fruit Factory - renovating an old barn into a sustainable straw bale building.

For several years we have been turning waste fruit from local orchards and people's homes into delicious produce such as jams, chutneys, and juices at pop-up scrumping events.

Along the way, we've had a brilliant time. Seeing people come together around food (from orchard to harvest, from production to consumption) has been a real insight into what community means to me. As one of our most successful projects - along with the hugely popular Apple Day - we want to make The Scrumping Project a little more lasting.

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So, we're building our very own Fruit Factory in an old tractor shed in Stanmer Village, just outside Brighton.

As an organisation, permaculture runs through all our decisions so the building of the Fruit Factory from straw bales was a natural step for us. To scale up the scrump in a sustainable way, to house our fruit processing kit, and have a beautiful venue and educational space it was important for us to create a permanent hub, for ourselves and the community.

Wanting to use natural resources, straw bale from nearby Burgess Hill made perfect sense to us. With their high insulation value and load bearing quality, straw bales (baled-up dead plant stems of a grain; not to be confused, or used, with hay which still has the seeds and flowers!) stack multiple functions.

The cosy, warm feel of straw bale builds was an important consideration too. The Fruit Factory is going to be a lively venue with people coming and going on those potentially cold apple harvest and gathering days.

Located in an old tractor shed in Stanmer Park the straw bale renovation began last summer with the help of our good friends the Low Carbon Trust. Bringing together experts with a team of volunteers and course participants one of the special things about the first part of the build was its inclusivity. In many cultures, especially in the US, where straw bale was pioneered in the mid west in the 19th century, the idea of "barn raising", or a community collective build, was common practice.

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Creative, fun and hands on, straw bale building expresses the qualities of natural building and echoes the best bits of community - something we aspire to in all aspects of our work. Natural building is not exclusive. We run an intensive three day course that is open to all. More accessible than conventional building practices, students are able to pick up the skills and confidence with the guiding hand of a tutor. The natural building approach in this sense is much more open.

The simplicity of such a technique also appeals to the DIY ethic of many of our active volunteers. Here's one of our students who went on to build this after doing a course with us!

Straw bale, like other natural building styles such as cob, rammed earth, and adobe, affords space for a more human approach. It brings together skilled and experienced practitioners with students seeking to build new skills and confidence.

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Needless to say such buildings are healthy places to occupy. Cheap too. Much cheaper than bricks. As straw is a natural (and renewable) material, our decision to go with such an approach means we're avoiding the massive carbon emissions of cement - both in the embodied energy of its creation and in its continued release throughout its life. Straw bale building has featured recently on the BBC, its effectiveness plain to see to the mainstream construction industry.

Right now the Fruit Factory stands half built. With the bales in place there's more to do. But we need to raise the funds to complete the building by installing windows, doors, roofing, rendering, and connection to services.

We made the considered decision to reach out to our community - and further afield - using crowdfunding. We aim to raise £12,000 in 30 days on Buzzbnk. We'd love to hear from you and get your support.

If you'd like to make a donation and keep abreast with the build and our fundraising campaign please check out www.brightonpermaculture.org.uk/fruitfactory.

Bryn Thomas is Brighton Permaculture Trust's course, events and fruit projects manager. As well as being a master pruner, prolific teacher, and champion scrumper, he loves to eat fruit, nuts and seeds.

You can follow Brighton Permaculture Trust on Facebook and Twitter

For more on Brighton Permaculture Trust visit https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk 

Further reading

Barbara Jones's two part piece 'Building with Straw Bales' in issue 32 & 33 of Permaculture magazine

Low impact natural building in Nicaragua

Serious Straw Bale - A Home Construction Guide for all Climates

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