Panama straw house no fox will blow down

David Dell

By David Dell

Most of us would consider them a fire hazard. The rest of us might recall reading about our first home invasion when a naughty fox with a taste for pork terrified the three little pigs.

Today however, straw houses are to be found in all parts of the world. Nicaragua’s resort town of San Juan del Sur boasts an upscale bar and hotel made of straw. When friends told me that someone was building a straw house here in the mountains of Panama- I just had to investigate.

Construction site

In the small mountain community of Paso Ancho, near the town of Volcan in western Panama I found a very enterprising lady who goes by the name of Sue. My first impression when I saw Sue’s straw house was that this was certainly no flimsy construction.

The two-story structure was basically a post and beam style home and used reinforced concrete for the main vertical columns.

The posts and beams were 12 inches square and would not have been out of place in a small factory - for a house I thought this was a little bit of overkill - but this would withstand any high wind load and seismic shock and Mr. Fox would have to be smoking something to even attempt knocking this house down.

Construction site

The straw in this case was simply acting as a curtain wall in place of traditional concrete blocks. Sue assured me the straw would have tremendous insulation value and the house Would not require either heating or cooling.

The process was quite simple straw - or whatever equivalent Sue managed to obtain - was bundled tightly and allowed to dry over several months. Then the bales were packed into the openings between the concrete pillars and then a mixture of cement and lime/ calcium was plastered over the top. The finished walls are about 17 to 18 inches thick and the lime/calcium not only acts as a sealant but also acts as a natural pest inhibitor.

I asked Sue if she chose straw because it was a more economic alternative to blocks. She admitted that in the end her savings over block would be small, if at all.

She disliked concrete block because it is cold and holds moisture and during Panama’s long rainy season can cause the formation of damp and mildew.

Sue’s social agenda

Unmistakably Sue has a slightly bigger agenda than just building a home. She feels that if she can demonstrate that straw and bamboo are economic and effective materials then there is a solution to the problem of low-cost housing for Panama’s poor and indigenous people.

Sue’s straw house will be a source of wonderment and conversation amongst her neighbours for month’s to come. I imagine it will also be a source of encouragement for homeless pigs and a source of extreme frustration for many a breathless fox.

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