This project uses straw-bale construction methods to provide low-income households in the Chernobyl area of Belarus with healthy, low-energy and inexpensive shelter. The straw-bale homes are three to four times cheaper to build than conventional brick houses and the involvement of local communities in all stages of the project has provided a range of opportunities for capacity building and income generation.
Aims and Objectives
- To develop environmentally friendly construction technologies for sustainable social housing using locally available renewable natural materials.
- To initiate a national programme of healthy, natural low-energy housing.
- To provide education support to transfer knowledge about the sustainable housing technologies (straw-bale, straw-clay and woodchip-clay) for local authorities, architects and builders.
The Belarusian Division of the International Academy of Ecology (BD IAE) developed the idea of building natural, low-energy houses for the rural population and vulnerable groups needing housing after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. An international seminar was held to discuss the ideas in 1996 and a few demonstration houses were built. Rye straw is the material predominantly used and after the application of stucco it has proved to be very strong, fire-resistant and durable. The Ministry of Architecture and Construction agreed to BD IAE’s proposals to develop a national construction programme using these materials and some local authorities and small building firms took part in the implementation of this building programme. Together with the Ministry of Architecture and Construction and the Belarusian Habitat Centre, BD IAE has developed a nationally recognised building code and works to train state and private construction firms.
A variety of house styles have been designed to allow for cultural acceptability. Local residents in an area are consulted and, if the house is privately funded, the future owner has a significant level of involvement in the design. If funded by the local government, the resident is less involved, although they can be involved in the construction and finishing of the house. The simplest design is a simple wood frame that is in-filled with straw-bales. These can be built in two weeks and have a high level of insulation. Local communities are involved in all stages of the project, including the construction. This provides capacity building and income generation opportunities. Soft loans from the state are available to help households meet the cost of purchase and the house becomes the property of the household once the loan is repaid. Others are rented from local authorities or companies.
A four-storey block of flats has also been built in Minsk. Starting in 1996 with a few demonstration houses, more than 150 two-storey houses have now been completed (100 straw-bale, 30 straw-clay and 20 woodchip-clay). A further 300 houses are due to be built with state support in the Gomel Region in 2006, half for rent and half for owner occupation using subsidised loans. A range of more complex houses have also been designed for those on middle incomes and over 100 such homes have been built independently of any government support.
A range of national and international bodies have supported the early developmental work of the organisation, including the national government. An allocation of US$5 million has been received from the Belarusian National Programme of Construction for the construction of 300 eco-houses in 2006.
On-going revenue support is not needed for the owner-occupation houses. Once the houses are built the owners are able to maintain them. Those built by local government or local companies are maintained by those organisations. Private households continue to develop straw-bale housing using conventional funding streams and the designs developed by BD IAE.
Why is it innovative?
- Use of a new technology that meets the principles of sustainable development.
- Introduction of the concept of low-energy housing into Belarus with the efficient use of renewable local materials.
- Increase in the ecological understanding and awareness of the population.
- Capacity building of the local community through its involvement in the construction process.
What is the environmental impact?
The energy involved in the manufacture of materials, transportation to site and construction process etc. is estimated to be 150 times less than conventional pre-fabricated concrete panel construction methods. Walls built from straw-bales offer tremendous insulation value, thereby reducing fuel costs, CO2 emissions and air pollution. With normal maintenance straw-bale houses can last a long time. The oldest known structure in use today is over 80 years old. With the knowledge and materials used today this can be extended.
Insulation values are R35 – R45 (US$75 – US$97) which is two to three times more than the current US building code. The houses are heated by traditional wood-burning stoves and there have been very significant reductions in fuel consumption (by a factor of four).
All straw-bale houses built since 1998 have a low-cost solar collector (at a cost of US$10 per m2) which is produced nationally and does not need to be imported. This provides domestic hot water from April to September for the smaller systems typically installed in the social housing and all year round in the much larger systems that some of the private owners include in their houses.
Grey water recycling and water efficient fittings have been included in the design of the houses.
Other environmental impacts of the project are:
• A reduction in the straw burnt in the field, hence lower levels of air pollution.
• Use of straw instead of wood as a primary building material helps to reduce pressure on Belarus’ dwindling forest resource.
• Straw is an entirely natural material and has none of the health risks associated with modern insulation materials currently being used in Belarus.
• Use of permaculture principles in the landscaping around the houses.
Is it financially sustainable?
Belarus state funding is likely to continue since it recognises that this is the most cost-effective way of providing social housing. Social housing can be provided either by the local government or by a local industrial firm. No grant aid is provided to those who are building privately. The trebling of the gas price in 2007 is a further incentive to continue to build using straw-bale.
Local farmers have a market for straw which previously had zero value and time had to be spent disposing of it, normally by burning.
The cost of construction is less than US$ 200 per m2, compared to US$ 500 per m2 for conventional construction. This is partly because the cost of materials is significantly lower, but also because the houses are much quicker to build, taking six weeks rather than six months and transport costs are approximately one fifth of previous construction methods.
Energy costs are between one third and one fifth of normally constructed housing. Smaller heating units can also be used.
What is the social impact?
Cooperation between different groups in the community has increased. There has been significant increase in cooperation between different social groups, living in the straw-bale houses. The common experience of living in straw-bale houses has helped to bring people together.
House construction skills have increased. Due to the low-tech nature of straw-bale construction almost anyone can build successfully with the help of family and friends. The walls for an 83m2 house can be raised in one day by untrained volunteer crews.
Good quality homes can be provided at comparatively low cost, enabling local government housing to be of a much higher quality than before and to be much more comparable with homes being built in the private sector.
Households that are using soft government loans are involved in the design, construction and finishing of their homes and this gives them increased confidence and self-esteem.
BD IAE addressed the initial resistance of builders and consumers to the idea of living in straw-built houses with a mass media education campaign, including TV programmes, publications and the construction of demonstration houses.
Housing providers, builders etc. were not interested in providing low-cost housing (low cost = low profit) and incentives are currently being developed to encourage greater involvement by building companies. Problems are caused in urban areas because the straw-bale houses are three to four times cheaper than conventional brick houses and the local building firms are unhappy. There is a strong lobby from builders and fossil fuel suppliers against the use of straw-bale as it represents a threat, due to its cheapness and lower energy consumption.
- Everything depends on the successful cooperation of the actors – government, NGO, public and business, particularly when there are severe economic challenges to be faced.
- The basic problems are those of mentality and business involvement. It is very hard to link profit and low-cost sustainable housing development.
- Mass media campaigns are very useful for changing people’s outlook.
The first houses built were monitored extensively by the Belarusian State Polytechnic Academy from 1997-2002 to ensure that they met all appropriate building standards and that the residents were happy living in them. To date no technical problems have been identified.
The environmental impact of reduced carbon emissions as a result of the straw-bale houses has led to improved health amongst residents. The Lower energy costs has led to a reduction in household expenditure and improved incomes for local farmers who now have a market for surplus straw.
A straw-bale building code has been established and adopted as national policy in 2000. The responsibility for enforcing the code belongs to the government. BD IAE has worked with the government on developing and refining the National Strategy for Sustainable Development.
The project started as a pilot project with two demonstration houses in each of the six regions of Belarus. It has now developed 150 houses and a further 300 are planned for 2006, half of which are funded by a special state programme for agricultural support and the other half as a soft loans programme for young families, vulnerable groups and families with three or more children.
A training programme has been developed to help transfer the construction technology. In 2005 and 2006 BD IAE is working with state construction firms in the Gomel and Minsk regions and with private building firms in other regions of Belarus Volis-story), Russia (Tulaugol and Ecodom) and Uruguay (Martimar S.A.). Special training programmes are being run for small businesses and companies.
More than 100 private eco-homes have been built using BD IAE’s designs and construction method. There has been national acceptance of the building method which has been formalised into a building code. The national government plans to extend the project into five other regions in 2007, after the significant increase in activity in the Gomel region in 2006.
Proposals for cooperation have been received from Albania, Croatia, Denmark, England, Germany, India, the Philippines, Slovenia, and Uruguay. Documentation and guidance has been given to help build four homes in the Ukraine, 17 in Russia, one in Moldova and two in Latvia. Positive publicity about the houses in the Ukraine has helped to further promote the work in Belarus. The UN-Habitat Executive Bureau in Russia has been supportive in assisting the establishment of the project in Sochi, Russia.
NGO, Private sector