Blog: The Well
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School Built of Straw

I have looked at building a strawbale home for years. Moisture and mold are concerns. I am considering moving to a less humid climate and strawnale design came back into one of the projects I would like to complete. Strawbale nomes have are most insultated above ground homes a homeoner could build and despite the big bad wolf story, strawbale homes are the most fireproof homes made(exception- a metal bilding).

Date:   2/27/2006 11:38:25 PM   ( 17 y ) ... viewed 2812 times

Better than Bricks: A School Built of Straw
By Laurie Guevara-Stone
Issue 116, Jan/Feb 2003
Parents want schools to employ great teachers, but what about the building itself? Does it welcome their children? As many educators and parents are beginning to realize, the physical space students occupy contributes greatly to their emotional and educational experience. That is why students at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, in western Colorado , spend their days in a beautiful, nurturing, passive-solar, straw-bale school.

Although the idea of building with straw may evoke images of the big bad wolf, people have been doing it for centuries. In the late 1800s, settlers in the Nebraska sand hills built their homes out of straw because they had no wood; some of their houses still stand today. Over the last decade, there has been a growing resurgence in straw-bale homes as people have come to appreciate their amazing energy efficiency and beauty.

Architect Jeff Dickinson, of Energy & Sustainable Design in Crystal Circle, Colorado , has been designing straw-bale homes since the early 1990s, and, with perseverance and imagination, has since branched out to educational facilities. In 1996 the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, which his seven-year-old daughter attends, decided to move to a new location and build a larger campus. They were in an old public-school building with buzzing fluorescent lights, noisy, inadequate heaters, and virtually no natural materials. They wanted buildings that were energy-efficient, light-filled, warm, and earthy. For Dickinson , straw bale was a perfect choice.

This Waldorf School now has more than 20,000 square feet of straw-bale buildings designed by Dickinson, with passive-solar heating, energy-efficient appliances, day-lighting, and natural building materials. The 13-acre campus consists of a 3,400-square-foot kindergarten, a 5,744-square-foot building for grades one through eight, and an 11,000-square-foot community hall that houses an auditorium, offices, and music and dance rooms. A 4,500-square-foot building for the upper grades is also planned.

The Waldorf education system, founded in 1919 by Austrian Rudolf Steiner, strives to awaken a child's inner being and develop his or her ability to meet the practical challenges of life. Steiner also invented anthroposophic architecture, which seeks to respond to the human form and human needs. He believed that buildings should appear in harmony with the landscape in which they are built, with regard to both form and material. Their form should reflect their function and should be both practical and artistic.

The buildings at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork are not only practical and artistic, but also energy-efficient and earth-friendly. The community hall's hand-carved doors depict the Norse Tree of Life, which students study in the fourth grade. The 200-seat auditorium is an acoustic marvel, designed so that a child can be heard on stage without any amplification.

The classrooms are as beautifully built and intricately designed as the community hall. The thick straw-bale walls create wide windowsills, which are lined with lush green plants. In addition, the walls have an insulating value more than twice that of conventionally built walls. Buildings stay warm in winter and cool in summer, with very little backup heating or air-conditioning.

The two kindergarten classrooms are built to a child's scale, with lower ceilings, coffered spaces, and no skylights (which are present in all of the older kids' classrooms), providing a safe, womb-like feeling. Classrooms for the younger grades are painted in warm colors, because Steiner believed that very young children still live in a fully open, pictorial consciousness. Once children reach fourth grade, Steiner asserted, they begin to think in abstract terms, and cooler colors are more appropriate.

All of the classrooms incorporate energy-efficient lighting and passive solar heating. Such features do more than save fuel and money; they also teach children to be aware of their impact on the earth. Classrooms for the upper grades have natural daylight from skylights and south-facing windows. Not only does this save on lighting bills, it also creates an improved learning atmosphere. A study done by a California architectural consulting firm found that students in classrooms with more natural light scored as much as 25 percent higher on standardized tests than other students in the same school district.1

Straw bales' amazing insulation qualities apply to noise as well. Although the Waldorf School is right next to a busy highway, no sound from the outside can be heard, and the recycled cotton insulation in the interior walls acts as a sound barrier between classrooms. In many schools, classroom noise makes children struggle to hear and concentrate, defeating the learning process. When researchers at Cornell University compared first- and second-graders at two New York City schools, they found that students attending the quieter school scored as much as 20 percent higher on a word-recognition test than students who learned with noisy airplanes flying overhead.2

Classroom shape is also significant. According to anthroposophic architectural guidelines, space should respond to the human form, not simply enclose it. Therefore, none of the Waldorf classrooms is square; all are angled in such a way as to help the children focus.

Indoor air quality is another factor affecting many children today. In February 1995, the US government reported that more than half of the nation's schools had problems linked to poor indoor air quality, including asthma attacks in susceptible children, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, and lethargy.3 The construction materials used in the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork are all nontoxic. Natural linoleum, nontoxic paints and sealers, and nonsolvent-based glues ensure that no toxins enter the air. Most of the wood is from recycled or sustainably harvested sources, making less impact on Mother Earth.

According to the American Association of School Administrators, "Students are more likely to prosper when their environment is conducive to learning. Architecture can be designed to support greater safety and security. Environmentally responsive heating, air-conditioning and ventilating systems, for example . . . provide a more comfortable learning environment. Such well-designed systems send a powerful message to kids about the importance their community places on education."4

With so much news coverage being given to school violence and failing school systems, it is time for people to realize that well-designed schools are much more than attractive spaces. A report by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International concludes, "Facility conditions may have a stronger effect on student performance than the combined influences of family background, socioeconomic status, school attendance, and behavior."5 When I send my son off to school, I want to be sure he is in the most nurturing, safe, environmentally friendly atmosphere possible-which is why, despite stories of the big bad wolf, he'll be learning in a school built of straw.

1. Kenneth J. Cooper, "Study Says Natural Classroom Lighting Can Aid Achievement," Washington Post, November 26, 1999 , A-14.
2. John Lyons, "The Learning Environment: Do School Facilities Really Affect a Child's Education?," Learning By Design (National School Boards Association), 2002; see
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Jeff Dickinson, Architect, Energy & Sustainable Design, 0504 Crystal Circle, Carbondale, CO 81623,

Solar Energy International, PO Box 715, Carbondale, CO 81623,,, offers workshops on straw-bale construction and solar home design.

The Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, 16543 Highway 82, Carbondale, CO 81623;

Laurie Guevara-Stone lives in western Colorado with her husband, son Camilo (2), and stepson Javier (21). She teaches and writes about renewable energy technologies at Solar Energy International, a nonprofit renewable-energy education organization.

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