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How to Insulate a Slab Foundation—With Straw-Bales?

Can straw bales be used as horizontal insulation under a concrete slab?

Posted on Feb 7 2011 by Scott Gibson

Superinsulated houses need insulation under the slab as well as in the walls and roof, and the most common choice for sub-slab insulation is rigid foam.

But it's not the only choice. In a post at the Q&A forum, Roy Harmon floats another possibility: the Archibio Sandwich Slab, which uses straw bales instead of foam as a thermal insulator.

The technique was popularized in a 1994 book, The Straw Bale House. Harmon describes the assembly as a "big sandwich," including two slices of concrete and a filling of straw bales.

"With almost no option other than petro-based materials, bales represent an ideal low-cost solution for quality comfortable floors," he says. "The straw bale insulated slab uses approximately 20% more concrete than a 6-in. thick conventional slab for an equivalent floor area. The cost is between 50 cents to 1 dollar per square foot of R-50 insulation. No other insulated slab can be so affordable."

Beware of rot

As appealing as straw bales are from a cost and resource conservation point of view, straw is an organic material that will rot under the right circumstances.

That's the note of caution from J Chesnut. He visited the owner/builder of a Minnesota straw bale home a few years ago, who said he would not recommend straw bales under the slab because he had found signs of rot in his own home.

The house was described in detail in a post by Jesa Damora found elsewhere on GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com. "The first floor would be concrete slab on rigid insulation if they were to do it again, but they went to great effort to make a sub-slab of straw bale and poured concrete (called a waffle slab)," Damora reported. "They now feel it represents too much labor and concrete to be worth the effort."

In Chesnut's opinion, it would be impossible to keep straw bales dry when used beneath a slab, making the potential for rot high.

He adds that water has a way of finding its way through concrete by hydrostatic pressure and capillaryForces that lift water or pull it through porous materials, such as concrete. The tendency of a material to wick water due to the surface tension of the water molecules. action. "I've worked on cob/straw bale construction with a natural builder who goes through great lengths to avoid the use of any 'unnatural' materials," Chesnut says. "But even he compromises where the wall meets the foundation with the use of rigid foam board and wet applied capillary breaks to ensure water is not wicked up from the ground into the straw bale. "

Dylan Eide adds another point: while straw bales provide excellent R-values, this technique of insulating the slab requires a great deal more concrete than a conventional slab.

"Considering the high embodied energyEnergy that goes into making a product; includes energy required for growth, extraction, and transportation of the raw material as well as manufacture, packaging, and transportation of the finished product. Embodied energy is often used to measure ecological cost. cost of concrete, the associated CO2 pollution, and presence of heavy metals increasing its use could very well be counter-productive," Eide writes. "After energy production concrete production is one the largest sources of CO2."

Get the bales out of the ground

Lucas Durand is among those who would be a little nervous putting draw bales below grade. But he wonders whether they might be used above grade as a "sub-slab" or "sub-floor insulation."

"Maybe some type of platform structure lifted a short distance above final grade by piers and straw bale infill underneath the platform," he writes. "Loose fill cellulose on top of the straw bales between the joists of the platform structure. The base under the straw bales could be well drained gravel with an impermeable membrane between the ground and the straw.

"A parged exterior but maybe with a rainscreenConstruction detail appropriate for all but the driest climates to prevent moisture entry and to extend the life of siding and sheathing materials; most commonly produced by installing thin strapping to hold the siding away from the sheathing by a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch. claddingMaterials used on the roof and walls to enclose a house, providing protection against weather. as well for suspenders," Durand adds. "I imagine the straw bales and cellulose would have to be able to dry to the inside of the platform structure above. Wide overhangs, and all-round kick-ass drainage would be critical."

Durand's accompanying schematic shows the assembly clearly. But, he adds, "there are many unresolved issues that I haven't thought about like air sealing, attachment of rain screen cladding over parging, drying potential of under-floor insulation, etc. etc."

Mineral wool and other options

AJ Builder wonders whether Roxul, a mineral-wool insulation made from spun basalt and recycled slag, is another alternative to foam.

Maybe it is, but Dan Kolbert writes that Roxul is "easily several times the cost" of either extruded (XPSExtruded polystyrene. Highly insulating, water-resistant rigid foam insulation that is widely used above and below grade, such as on exterior walls and underneath concrete floor slabs. In North America, XPS is made with ozone-depleting HCFC-142b. XPS has higher density and R-value and lower vapor permeability than EPS rigid insulation.) or expanded polystyrene (EPSExpanded polystyrene. Type of rigid foam insulation that, unlike extruded polystyrene (XPS), does not contain ozone-depleting HCFCs. EPS frequently has a high recycled content. Its vapor permeability is higher and its R-value lower than XPS insulation. EPS insulation is classified by type: Type I is lowest in density and strength and Type X is highest.). After checking his records, he says he paid about $50 per 4-ft. by 6-ft. sheet of 2 3/8-in. Roxul, making it about twice the cost of 3-in. EPS.

"The 2 3/8-in. Roxul DrainBoard is R-10, while the 3-in. XPS is R-15," adds GBA senior editor Martin Holladay. "So the Roxul is more than 3 times as expensive as the XPS in terms of $/R."

J Chesnut also speculates that it might be possible for a manufacturer to produce a sub-slab panel out of the same materials used to make Faswall or Durisol blocks, which are types of insulated concrete forms that use wood fiber and cement rather than foam.

"I think they make poor wall assemblies but seems like they could make a rugged sub-slab insulating 'SIP(SIP) Building panel usually made of oriented strand board (OSB) skins surrounding a core of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation. SIPs can be erected very quickly with a crane to create an energy-efficient, sturdy home. ' panel. The product is basically a sandwich of the mineral fiber insulation and cementitious wood fiber, which I believe is inert to rotting."


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  1. Lucas Durand

1.
Mon, 02/07/2011 - 23:06

clarification
by j chesnut

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My mention of Faswall and Durisol concerned an idea to develop a panel product of the same materials (cementitious wood fiber and mineral wool insulation) that does not yet exist. Faswall and Durisol are blocks like CMUs and are of little use for subslab insulation. If Roxul rigid mineral wool panels can work under a slab then this idea would probably only constitute an option even more expensive yet.

"The first floor would be concrete slab on rigid insulation if they were to do it again, but they went to great effort to make a sub-slab of straw bale and poured concrete (called a waffle slab)," Damora reported. "They now feel it represents too much labor and concrete to be worth the effort."

Now seeing this quote I wonder if I incorrectly recalled the discussion with the owners of finding evidence of rot under the slab. I know the owner found rot in the walls which was subsequently rectified. I also am positive that they advised against the straw as a subslab insulation per Damora's quote but maybe I'm incorrectly conflating the two recollections. Still I would be skeptical of a subslab installation considering how prone straw is to moisture damage if it can't dry properly if wetted.


2.
Wed, 02/09/2011 - 19:22

Bad idea. Period.
by Emilio Garazgos

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Why are we even talking about this in 2011 when it was clearly pointed out in the 1997 "Pilot Study of Moisture Control in Stuccoed Straw Bale Walls" report to Canada Mortgage & Housing Corp (CMHC) that such constructions are the equivalent of placing a moisture-susceptible material into a moisture-impermeable bell jar. In that almost 15 yr -old study, the investigators cut into strawbale wall and floor assemblies that were about 10 years old and then inspected/photographed the condition of straw.


3.
Wed, 02/09/2011 - 21:12

Response to Emilio
by Lucas Durand - 7A

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Emilio,
Thanks for linking that CMHC study - interesting stuff.
It's not clear from your previous post whether "Bad idea. Period." refers to insulating below grade with strawbales or to strawbale building in general.

If you mean insulating below grade with strawbales is a bad idea, I'm inclined to agree.

If you mean strawbale building in general is a bad idea, I diagree. The conclusions in that CMHC study read more like good advice for any structure (strawbale or not) and not like an indictment of strawbale building. From the "conclusion":

What's not done lightly with wood should not be done with straw... not yet, anyway.

Fair enough.

Wood held in the same moisture state and duration would rot similarly, we have observed, but would avoid or delay that condition in most of these cases if only because a wood frame wall drains better and the "net drying regime" is strengthened.

More attention moisture management.

...cement rich stuccoes may well be too impermeable to water vapour — not "breathable" enough — to use freely as exterior skins in cold country... and the lime rich stuccoes too permeable to liquid water for driving rain country...

More attention to climate-specific variables.

...we think the problem of excessive moisture can be avoided altogether at the design and construction stage, although we would not be confident building stuccoed straw bale in all regions.

The all-important design-stage... The perfect time to sort out all the pesky details.

I think there is potential for more modern details to correct some of the regional deficiencies caused by universal application of traditional techniques - for example adapting rainscreen claddings to strawbale construction in rainy maritime climates...


4.
Thu, 02/10/2011 - 18:30

Don't put straw bales under your floor!
by Bruce King, GBA Advisor

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Emilio is right, and thank you for digging up that CMHC study. I've been tracking, designing, building, studying and researching straw bale buildings for 15 years, and love them and the wonderful kooky people you meet around them. But they do need extra protection from moisture, and every attempt I know of to use bales to insulate floors has failed in that the bales do rot. Sometimes just a bit, sometimes a lot, but either way they stop insulating.


5.
Thu, 02/10/2011 - 19:25

Strawbale . Good idea. Eh ?
by Emilio Garazgos

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The title of this piece asks if straw bales (SB) as under-slab insulation is a reasonable proposition.

It is that proposition to which I refer: re "Bad idea. Period" (above)

The report cited (above) is what, 15 years old now ?

There are also a good number of other research reports on SB construction done under the auspices of CMHC over the subsequent 15 years-- an investment of a not-insignifcant amount of Canadian taxpayer funds - that look at pretty much every aspect of building with straw (including thermal performance, vapour permeance of various plaster skin choices, inexpensive DIY in-wall moisture sensorss etc ) with the intent of providing would-be SB builders with an arsenal of useful, factual information to improve their chances of making durable, healthful,energy-efficient, low environmental impact buildings.

I think that it would be reasonable to assume that those govt funds would not have been invested if initial investigations showed that SBC was a "Bad Idea".

There are currently thousands of SB buildings around the world. (The numbers and locations of many can be seen at sbregistry.greenbuilder.com/ )


6.
Thu, 02/10/2011 - 19:56

Edited Thu, 02/10/2011 - 23:27.

Roxul prices lower than XPS per square foot
by Jonathan Lantz-Trissel

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In Virginia I just ordered 2 3/8" Drainboard (R-10) 4x6 sheets at $19.03 a piece. 1" for $7.97 (R-4.3). 2" XPS (R-10, 4x8 sheet) was quoted at $32.75. So for equivalent R-values, the mineral wool is about $.80 per sq foot vs $1.02 per sq foot for the XPS. Scott, Would it make sense to update the above article to acknowledge that mineral wool might be far more competitive with foamboards than stated?


7.
Thu, 02/10/2011 - 20:54

Response to Emilio.
by Lucas Durand - 7A

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The title of this piece asks if straw bales (SB) as under-slab insulation is a reasonable proposition.

It is that proposition to which I refer: re "Bad idea. Period" (above)

Well then, I guess we agree.

I think it is still worth noting though that that CMHC study's focus isn't below grade use of strawbales, nor is the study conclusive in its findings. More from the "conclusion":

A much wider field project should be conducted across Canada and at least northern tier USA, further refining and using the method and procedure as developed in the pilot.


8.
Thu, 02/10/2011 - 21:09

Response to Jonathan
by Lucas Durand - 7A

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Jonathan,
Thanks for the information. I have been considering using drainboard recently.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that I'll be able to use a rock-wool board under my slab...
Roxul makes a rigid board "RockBoard 80" which is (I think) their highest rated product in terms of compressibility (only slightly higher than "DrainBoard"). At 10% deformation it only comes in at 743psf - 5.16psi.


9.
Sat, 08/06/2011 - 23:18

Rockboard80
by Robert Nemoyer

Helpful? 0

Lucas,
Would this indicate that 25 psi extruded insulation would not deform as much? I am wondering if it would work under my footers as well as under my slab. I would like to put 2 inch thick xps underneath a 24 wide by 12 deep footer. But I will have a heavy wall on that footer. A concrete sip of 2 1/2 concrete 7 inches of xps and 2 1/2 concrete on the inside. This would be on a ranch with a basement so it would be almost 20 feet high including the basement wall. I want it under the footer because if the footer is on the ground the inside was of 2/12 inches would conduct the cold up the wall. I could try to put the insulation over the footer and under the inside concrete skin but I suspect that would be even worse because the weight wouldn't be concetrated even more? Another option is getting more expensive 40 or 60 psi insulation under the sabor under the internal skin.


10.
Sun, 08/07/2011 - 06:21

Response to Robert Nemoyer
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Robert,
In case you didn't see it, some of the questions you raise are discussed here: Foam Under Footings. Be sure to read the comments that follow the article.


11.
Mon, 03/25/2013 - 08:31

Why not Perlite???
by Todd Collins

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Have you considered bags of perlite? While it isn't the best for footers due to deflection, it will work below a slab/basement floor.


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