Building Straw Bale Homes in Quake-Devastated Pakistan

By Kamran Khan

Architect Martin Hammer with earthquake victims in Pakistan

Question: Mr. Hammer, what is your professional background and what prompted you to go to Pakistan to help with the earthquake relief efforts?
Answer: I am an architect who has been in private practice for twenty years, designing mostly custom residential projects, but occasionally small commercial or institutional projects as well. I have been involved with the design, engineering, and construction of straw bale buildings for 10 years. I have written extensively about straw bale construction, and have been involved with straw bale building codes for the last 5 years, including writing a proposed straw bale building code for the State of California. Last year a colleague, a woman engineer who resides in Truckee, California named Darcey Donovan, invited me to join her to continue her effort to bring the method of straw bale construction to earthquake-affected Pakistan, and I agreed.

Q: You and your colleague have proposed building new homes with straw bale in the earthquake affected areas in Pakistan. Isn’t that a rather antiquated technology?
A: First, whether a building technology has been available for 10 minutes or 10 thousand years isn’t relevant. All that matters is that it works and is appropriate for a given circumstance. Straw bale construction both works and is very appropriate for the earthquake affected region of Pakistan.

Martin Hammer

Q: Won’t the straw bale homes be quite vulnerable to fire, rain, and salination? What would happen if it rains during the construction?
Loose straw is very flammable, baled straw is resistant to fire, and a plastered straw bale wall is extremely resistant to fire. So it is true that care must be taken to keep a construction site clear of loose straw and free from ignition sources. Moisture is a very important concern for straw bale buildings. Straw, like wood, when it becomes wet and stays wet (above 20% moisture content) will deteriorate. However the same volume of straw deteriorates faster than wood, mostly due to its lower density. So it’s important to keep straw dry from the time it is cut in the field to the time it is plastered, as well as during its life in a building.

Q: How can those who might be skeptical about straw bale construction method be made more confident about the utility and reliability of this construction technique?
A: Overcoming unfamiliarity with straw bale construction is one of the challenges we face in Pakistan. This is often a problem in the United States and elsewhere as well. We give presentations, and we encourage people to read books and research relevant websites. Two of the best ways to develop confidence in straw bale construction are to participate in the construction of a straw bale building oneself, or to visit a building already constructed. I’ve heard people say once they’ve lived in a straw bale house, they would never live in anything else.

Q: Will you be building these straw bale homes or just educating interested groups and NGOs about building such homes?
A: Our objective is to spread awareness and capability for this method of construction as soon as possible and to as broad a geographic area as possible. We are building pilot projects, and at the same time training students to build with this method, so they can build on their own and train others as well. Our intent is not to build for people, but to teach people to build for themselves. We have partnered, and will continue to form new partnerships with NGOs and other interested groups to conduct trainings and educate people about straw bale construction. We wish to make ourselves unnecessary as soon as we can.

Q: To the best of your knowledge, what other technologies are being employed to rebuild quake damaged homes? What are the comparative advantages of straw bale homes?
Other technologies being used in the reconstruction include: steel reinforced concrete block with light gauge steel roof framing, wood reinforced stone masonry with wood framed roof, reinforced concrete post and beam with reinforced concrete block infill,
diagonally braced timber frame with stone and clay mortar infill (called dhajji).
Advantages of straw bale construction for earthquake affected Pakistan are as follows:
It is earthquake resistant, energy and resource efficient, renewable and readily available, utilizes unskilled labor, affordable, fire resistant, pest resistant, aesthetically pleasing – traditional appearance, natural and non-tox. The other technologies being used have some of the above advantages, but none have all of them.

Q: You had recently met with members of the Pakistan American Democratic forum (PADF). How can organizations like PADF help you with your project?
A: Organizations like PADF could help our effort in two ways. One is to help spread awareness of our effort, especially to Pakistani Americans and to Pakistanis within Pakistan. The other is to help with fundraising.

Q: How were you received in Pakistan and do you think your trip was helpful in building people-to-people goodwill between Pakistan and the United States?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the primary reasons I went to Pakistan to do this work was to help establish “people-to-people” goodwill between Pakistan and the United States. That kind of direct goodwill is very important, and very different from any relationship that exists between governments. It is more genuine, and more human. It is always a good thing to do between different cultures, but it is especially important to do now, between the United States and a primarily Islamic country such as Pakistan. Many misconceptions exist in both countries about the other, largely due to partial views or misrepresentations portrayed in various forms of the news media.
* AMA Intern


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.