Loam and straw make comeback in modern low-energy house | Arts | DW | 14.02.2011
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Loam and straw make comeback in modern low-energy house

The Flury house in Switzerland is a low-energy structure in the true sense of the word. By keeping things simple and using local materials like straw and loam, the designers used half the energy otherwise needed.

Spades in front of loam wall

Flury's house has revived the use of traditional materials

Ueli Flury's house in Switzerland, made entirely from locally sourced natural materials, is the first of its kind.

"I didn't want to live in a standard apartment. I wanted to build an individual house that was ecologically worthwhile and self-sufficient," Flury told Deutsche Welle.

When Flury began thinking about a retirement home, he realized it was important to him to live in a space built from natural, local materials. He also wanted to be autonomous - independent from the public electricity grid and the water works. Essentially, he aimed to be a modern caveman.

"I wanted to use healthy materials," Flury said, who manages a gardening business. "I did things differently. I thought about the design for a long time and in the end I built a cave."

In order to reduce the energy used in transport, Flury stipulated that all raw materials came from within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius of his village, Deitlingen.

spades leaning against a wall

Walls made of loam provide good insulation

Flury also tried to reduce the energy costs for treating the materials in his home. Trees were felled in a certain lunar phase, when the wood has low water content. This meant that it could be stored for six months and air dried without needing any extra energy.

In total the house required 194,672 kilowatt hours of energy to produce and transport the building materials - that's about half the amount needed for a conventional home.

"I didn't know if it was possible at first, but now we've proven it," said Flury.

An uphill struggle

Using such extraordinary materials was no easy task.

"We trod a long path, but it was worth it," Beno Aeschlimann of Spaceshop Architects, who designed the project, told Deutsche Welle. "Maybe it'll prompt other architects to try this out too."

The house is built on a foundation of recycled gravestones and waste stones from bridges that Flury collected over the years. The structure is spruce wood from the forest in Deitlingen. The floors and roof are insulated with straw that was gathered from around his village; 80-centimeter (31-inch) loam walls provide additional insulation.

Ueli Flury

Flury is satisfied with his dwelling

Aeschlimann said a key challenge was ensuring these rustic materials met modern building standards.

"There was a lot of uncertainty with all these EU and Swiss laws. It was hard to conform to these laws with unknown materials," Aeschlimann said. "We had to find out their energy values, their structural properties and flammability."

Loam is a kind of sandy clay, which in Flury's case was mixed with straw to give it the right consistency and insulation properties. But these rough natural materials might not be to everyone's taste.

"The loam can crumble off in your hands. It's a contrast to this stylish world," said Aeschlimann, whose design won him the DETAIL magazine's green prize in January 2011. "But people long for this rawness. You see it in fashion. Humans miss it and look for it. It's this aspect that makes an impression on you when you're in the house."

Loam is very rarely used nowadays and an expert construction team had to come from Germany, where loam houses were built until the World War II. All other construction workers came from within a 20-kilometer radius of the building site.

Breathing easily

Stove in kitchen of Ueli Flury's house

The home is heated by a central stove

The loam walls mean that Flury doesn't need an energy-guzzling ventilation system. The walls absorb and release moisture, and any odors like smoke and cooking smells, he said. They also absorb the sun's heat during the day, keeping his home cool in the summer and release the heat at night to provide extra warmth.

"The walls have lots of advantages for the indoor climate. When people first visit my home they notice that something's different. At first they think it's cooler, but then they just realize how fresh the air is. They can breathe more comfortably because the loam breathes and brings new air into the home," Flury explained.

The unique material brings Flury closer to nature. "I've seen birds landing on the walls and picking out odd bits of straw and probably insect larvae. I've seen a lot of insects on the walls," he said.

However, the major drawback to loam is that it cannot get wet, otherwise it would disintegrate and bacteria would start to decompose the straw. The architects solved this problem by installing a long overhang to protect the outside walls from rain.

Sustainable and self-sufficient

Flury produces all of the energy he needs to live in his new house. Electricity comes from a set of solar cells on the roof of the next door farm house, which he also owns. He only uses about a quarter of the energy he produces from his solar panels and the rest is sent back to the public grid. Flury reckons that in 39 years he'll have balanced out the energy needed to build the house with what he produces.

The house is heated via a central stove, which conforms to current CO2 and smoke standards. The stove heats water and sends it to the radiators. He burns fire wood, which he collects from a local forest.

Bathroom in Uli Flury's house

Traditional materials are blended with modern architecture

"The upkeep is hard work and takes me about two hours extra each week than a conventional modern house," Flury said. "But it keeps me fit, too."

Flury's house isn't connected to the sewage system. All the water from his shower and kitchen sink gets sent to a sand filter in his garden and is used by the next door flower shop to water their plants. The waste from his toilet is sent straight to the compost, which he empties about twice a year and uses in the garden.

"I'm very proud of this project and I think that when people build they should consider their surroundings and their own needs more and carry out the building project in a more sensitive manner. Sustainability is really important regardless of whether you value ecology," Flury said.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Kate Bowen

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