Building this house from straw bales was a challenge but the result is a beautiful, sustainable home. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Straw bale construction is still a niche method of building in Britain but, after extensive research, Jonathan and Sara Banister decided it was well worth defying convention for.
They used the bales to build a cross between a Georgian country home and a French Manor house and their passion and positivity for the self-build project has delivered one of the UK’s finest homes made of straw.
It is often mistaken for a period property and is supremely energy-efficient. It also has the calm feel, enveloping warmth and lack of noise transference between rooms that straw bale brings.
Thanks to a lifetime working in design, the Banisters have added breathtakingly beautiful interiors.
If anyone is inspired to follow their lead, they suggest that personality type is an important credential. “We are optimists and dreamers, otherwise we would never have taken on this project,” says Jonathan.
The build took longer and cost more than they imagined as they changed their minds, upped the specification and battled set-backs but they have shrugged it off with a smile.
“Even though we didn’t achieve our aim of being completely mortgage-free, we have no regrets. We got the house we dreamed of,” says Jonathan.
He and Sara sold their Jacobean home near Skipton to follow their hearts.
“We started by looking for a Georgian house we could modernise and maybe add a straw bale extension to but we couldn’t find anything in our price bracket,” he says.
Their lucky break came via this newspaper. Sara spotted a 1970s dormer bungalow with four acres of land in a pretty village near Easingwold. The location was perfect but the bungalow wasn’t so the local authority planning team agreed they could replace it.
“The planners were wonderful. They allowed us to build a house that is three times bigger than the bungalow and they also let us to live in the bungalow while the work was ongoing,” says Sara.
The planners were impressed by the proposed home, which has a link building leading to a new barn. It was eco-friendly and designed to look as though it had been there for almost 300 years.
The interiors also look authentic, helped by the fact that the Banisters’ Keighley-based business, Oakleaf.co.uk, specialises in reproducing period features. Using precast, compacted resin, it makes everything from panelling, beams and embellishments, including friezes, plate racks and corbels. Indistinguishable from the real McCoy, Oakleaf products have been used everywhere from rustic cottage restorations and London mansions to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle
“People often ask us how old our house is and are surprised when we tell them,” says Sara, a creative who drew what she wanted the house to look like. “That picture is almost exactly what we built. Friends call it Franco-Georgian,” she says.
After reading Building with Straw Bales, a book by Barbara Jones, they hired the author to help them.
She is a leading authority on the subject and pioneered straw bale building in Britain. She now runs Todmorden-based Straw Works and offers design, planning and consultancy, along with training in straw bale building and plastering.
“We employed two friends who are very experienced builders, Michael Fisher and Andrew Holden, and Barbara came over to give us all some training,” says Sara.
With that knowledge, straw bales bought locally and second-hand scaffolding from eBay, they began the build in August 2014.
It started with a couple of setbacks. There was a fire at the farm that had their pre-ordered bales of wheat straw.
They managed to get more straw and found Chris Hoggard who was able to make it into the the small bales they needed.
“Unfortunately, the weather was really wet and even though we piled the bales on pallets and covered them up, 60 per cent were destroyed by the damp and by rats and mice,” says Jonathan. “Fortunately it isn’t expensive. They are only £2 per bale and we needed 1,000 bales for the whole project.”
The barn was the first building to be constructed and served as storage for another order of wheat straw for the house.
The sturdy bales provide exceptional levels of insulation and some were carved to create curved walls.
The straw is covered with 60 tons of lime plaster and topped with a roof of pantiles from William Blyth while the chimney and the archway outside are made of brick from York Handmade Brick Company.
Inside, there is a huge reception hall leading to an open plan kitchen/dining/living space with kitchen units by Hovingham Interiors. There’s also a separate sitting room, main bedroom and en suite on the ground floor, along with an office and utility/boot room.
Upstairs, there are three en suite bedrooms accessed via a magnificent curved, cantilevered limestone and wrought iron staircase.
“We were quoted £50,000 for a staircase so we decided to design and have had it made ourselves. It was a fraction of the cost we had been quoted,” says Sara, who used stone mason Matthias Garn and blacksmith Andrew Brind.
All the windows are triple glazed and there is a mechanical heat recovery and ventilation unit, all from The Green Building Store in Huddersfield.
There is no central heating, just an Aga and a wood-burning stove, which are used in winter.
“It stays at a steady 21 degrees in winter because it is so well insulated,” says Jonathan.
The lime plaster walls are mostly white, though Sara plans to add more colour. The reproduction beams, panelling, architraves and some of the furniture are by Oakleaf and some of the pelmets and mirrors are from the Sara Kirkby range, which Sara designs for the family firm.
Much of the furniture is from their former home and bedrooms feature built-in storage.
A flat-roof building links to the barn, which houses an artist’s studio for their son, Jack, the MVHR unit, water pump and rainwater storage.
Total costs added up to £450,000 for the site and £600,000 on the build, fit-out and wildlife-friendly garden.
It took just over two-and-a-half years to create their new home.
“It’s probably 25 per cent more than we thought it might cost,” says Jonathan. “But it is exactly what we wanted. The straw and lime plaster give it a lovely atmosphere and it’s a wonderful place to live.”
Oakleaf, reproduction period features, www.oakleaf.co.uk
Barbara Jones, Straw Works, www.strawworks.co.uk
Native Architects, www.nativearchitects.com
William Blyth pantiles, www.williamblyth.co.uk
York Handmade Brick, www.yorkhandmade.co.uk
Green Building Store, www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk
Hovingham Interiors kitchen, www.hovinghaminteriors.com
Bedale stone flooring
Eco lime plaster, www.ecolime.co.uk
Grand Design plumbing/bathrooms, tel: 01535 681181
Matthias Garn, master mason, www.matthiasgarn.com
Andrew Brind, blacksmith, www.andrewbrindltd.co.uk