Reading Art Molella’s entry on the Museum of American History’s blog, Oh Say Can You See, on Earth Day themes such as sustainable “eco-cities” and souvenirs of Earth Days in the past (from the exhibit Science in American Life) reminded me that the book he mentions, Inventing for the Environment, published by MIT Press in association with the Lemelson Center, included an essay that used the Trade Literature Collection at Smithsonian Libraries.
The book discusses how technology, sometimes considered the villain in the quest for a “greener” world, can be used appropriately and innovatively, potentially enhancing sustainable environments. Kathryn Henderson, Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Texas A&M University, wrote an essay entitled, “Straw-Bale Building: Using an Old Technology to Preserve the Environment,” which focused on the renewed interest in a technology—constructing buildings with hay or straw bales—that began in the 19th century.
Straw (or hay) bale building is an example of adapting and reusing technology in an environmentally friendly way: one that employs some 20th century technological innovations to help meet today’s more stringent building codes, while embracing the spirit of yesterday's ecologically sound technique. Straw bale houses started in Nebraska in the mid-1800’s as an inexpensive but surprisingly durable method of dwelling construction that has emerged recently as a “green” alternative for shelter construction. Dr. Henderson used some of the library trade catalogs to trace the history of straw-baling equipment. Once the hay balers could produce uniform brick-like bales, the homesteaders and farmers could effectively use the bales to build houses.
One of the catalogs she used is from the Dederick Agricultural and Machine Works (P.K. Dederick’s Sons) in Albany, New York. P.K. Dederick was in inventor and patented several improvements in hay-baling equipment (see image above, left). Another company making hay presses (or hay balers) was Kansas City Hay Press Company in Kansas City, Missouri (see image above, right). Virtually all of the early straw-bale-built homes were constructed in the Midwest and the popular Lightning Press was likely used in Nebraska by straw bale builders, according to Henderson. Though the process is now mechanized, the straw bales themselves are basically still the same. Contemporary straw bale home builders must now comply with building codes that require fire-testing and load-bearing refinements that Nebraska pioneers did not have to contend with. But, as a glance at a search of Google Books for “straw bale building” will show, this seemingly old-fashioned method has been embraced by those who like the tradition and simplicity of the style with its thick walls while the favorable insulation values also attract those looking for more sustainable and energy-saving construction methods.—Jim Roan