In an era when most young people struggle to get on the property ladder, 27-year-old Sam Atkinson reckons he is fortunate to own his own home. Yet luck only played a small part in what is a remarkable achievement.
Hard graft, determination and a tremendous amount of skill went into the straw bale house, which Sam designed and constructed for himself and his wife Charlotte.
The seeds for his self-build odyssey were sown by his mother Carol. She was inspired by a straw building at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and it prompted a diversification into eco holiday homes on her family’s 160-acre beef farm, near Howden.
Helped by a friend, she created a straw cabin in 2006. Three years later, she came up with plans for a large straw bale cottage and Sam gave up his job as a carpenter at a factory in Hull to construct it.
“I never went back to the factory. I got orders on the back of that project and I’ve been straw bale building for the past eight years,” he says.
Trained by Yorkshire-based Barbara Jones, the UK’s leading authority on straw builds, he was enthralled by a method of construction that is regarded as mainstream in Canada and North America.
“They’re eco-friendly, relatively easy to construct and their insulating qualities are second to none,” says Sam, who has since developed his own hybrid system of building.
A conventional straw build involves stacking the bales like giant bricks. They are held together by hazel rods then topped with a timber plate, which is strapped to the foundations before the roof goes on. This means construction is often hampered by wet weather.
Sam’s method involves erecting a timber frame to hold the straw bales. This is then topped with an overhanging roof before the bales are slotted into place.
“I spent five weeks in Canada and saw something similar there, which I’ve adapted to suit this country. Getting the roof on quickly and being able work in all weathers makes a big difference to build times,” he says.
His bales are trimmed and then get three coats of breathable lime render and the roof is insulated from the inside with sheep’s wool or recycled plastic.
On an average house, it takes seven weeks to do the foundations, frame and roof and another week to slot the bales into the frame.
So far, Sam has constructed about 20 buildings, including a barn, bird hides, an outdoor classroom, houses and extensions. His latest innovation is a £23,000 straw glamping pod, complete with a kitchen and bathroom. “Ideal for farmers who want to diversify into holiday lets, for existing campsites or as home offices,” he explains.
The home he built for himself took just 10 months from foundations to being fully fitted out. It is on the site of the family farmhouse, which his grandparents had lived in. The old property was, he says, in a dreadful state.
The site is almost at sea level and the building was so low lying that rising damp had crept four feet up the walls and the brick work was crumbling. The planners were happy for it to be demolished to make way for a new, energy-efficient low-carbon house.
The bricks from the house were used to help create a higher-than-average foundation plinth for the timber skeleton, which was topped with a roof of clay pantiles.
The 364 bales of wheat straw he needed were from Chantry’s Farm at nearby Newsholme as Sam likes to use local materials, and their straw is cut with an old combine, which leaves it long and easier to render.
The straw walls were then rendered outside and inside with a lime, hemp and sand mix before being painted with pinkish/red lime wash. The hemp is from another local business, the Voase family farm.
The internal dividing walls downstairs are built from concrete blocks, which act as a heat store while upstairs, they are timber.
“I didn’t use bales for the internal walls as they take up a lot of space,” says Sam, who used his carpentry skills to do all the joinery himself, from the doors to the kitchen units and the beautifully crafted dressers and built-in units. He also made the windows, which sit in the deep rounded recess created by the bales, and a porthole “truth window” which shows the straw.
Downstairs, there is a kitchen, separate dining room, large sitting room and a utility area. Upstairs, there are four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The insulation provided by the bales means there is rarely any need to turn the heating on and the house is also damp and condensation free.
“The lime plaster soaks up moisture and that is wicked away by the straw to the outside wall where it is released.
“The straw remains bone dry. It doesn’t hold water,” says Sam, whose only regret is putting in underfloor heating fed by a pellet boiler.
The boiler should generate a pay-back via the government feed-in tariff but, says Sam: “The house is so thermally efficient, it gets too hot with the heating on, so we don’t use the boiler enough to generate a feed-in tariff.
“A small gas or oil boiler and a couple of radiators or an air source heat pump would’ve been better.”
He funded the build, which includes a garage clad in larch, by selling his previous house, though getting a mortgage on straw bale properties is possible.
“They aren’t mainstream yet but there are a lot more of them and there are lenders who will let you borrow,” says Sam, who points out that the Yorkshire-based Ecology Building Society is one of the most supportive. Insurance is also no problem, the bales are so tightly packed that they are slow to combust due to lack of oxygen, so they surpass the fire tests set by building regulations.
“It’s far safer than a conventional house unless you put plasterboard on the bales instead of render.
“Building regulations allow that but to my mind it creates a massive fire channel,” says Sam.
The cost to clients for a similar home, fully fitted and ready to move into, would be £180,000. It’s a very keen price that could lead to a rush of orders and that is something Sam is keen to avoid.
“I am a one-man band who hires in a plumber, an electrician and a roofing contractor to help me.
“If the business got bigger then I’d be mass producing when what I really enjoy is working with my hands-on individual, bespoke builds. I’m also a stickler for quality and if I do things myself I know they’ve been done right,” he says.
Sam Atkinson, straw bale building specialist, sacarpentry.co.uk Carole’s straw bale holiday lets are at homegrownhome.co.uk