Impact Journalism Day
With Paille Tech, a house built in less than six weeks
Paille Tech, a Belgian social enterprise, has developed a method for prefabricating the components of a house, in order to considerably reduce construction time. On top of that, the parts are made entirely of natural, renewable materials.
Without showing a single sign of struggle, three builders push a three tonne wall into place. A second-hand crane rail, purchased from a nearby construction goods dealer, is the only piece of heavy equipment necessary to piece together the walls of this house, which are custom made, out of straw. However, this doesn't look anything like a stereotypical straw house. Established in 2009, Paille Tech's vision was to one-day use straw as a multi-purpose construction material. "We wanted to massively reduce the time it takes to build a house, whilst simultaneously being able to provide customers with an ecological and reliable product," explains Eric Smeesters, CEO of Paille Tech. "We started from nothing and learning from our mistakes, finally succeeded. We put together our production line all by ourselves, inventing our own machines and improving them over time. Now we're at the point where we feel ready to begin mass production."
Paille Tech's construction method is unique and simple. They prefabricate their walls in their warehouse, from the initial straw insulation to the application of the wall's exterior coating. "Our main innovation was to apply the exterior coating in advance," explains Eric Smeesters. "By doing so, construction time is considerably reduced. We apply two layers of coating on the walls whilst they lie horizontally, which allows the coating to dry faster, without dripping or cracking. Anyone who has used straw in DIY construction knows that applying the coating is the most time consuming part, as you need to apply multiple layers and wait a long time for them to dry. However, using our method, we can have walls pre-made for a house in 4 to 6 weeks, and then it only takes 3 to 4 days to mount them at the construction site. After that, most of the job is done and the house is protected from bad weather."
No dependence on big electronics corporations
Over the last few years, Paille Tech has consistently improved their construction method to make their walls as effective and reliable as possible. In their warehouse, the machines of their production line are hidden under tarpaulins to keep them from prying eyes. Built with precision and care, they produce carefully measured bails of straw specific for use in construction, which are then compressed to the greatest extent possible, and coated with a special mix of clay and earth, the recipe for which is protected by a patent. "All of our machines have been hand made, and don't require electricity, as we didn't want the production of our product to be dependent on multinational electronics corporations. This also means they're very easy to use, and it allows us to recreate them easily and repair them rapidly. We can even get the local metal worker to come repair them. The wood we use comes from a forest nearby and we get our straw from a farmer in Hélécine (A nearby municipality), who has developed a cultivation technique specific to our construction needs."
Despite the local economy being integral to Paille Tech's work, their partners aren't opposed to the industrialisation of their production method. "Straw shouldn't be a luxury product destined to belong to those in the know" Says Jean-Luc De Wilde, a CEO. "It should be available to everyone. However, for that to happen the cost of production needs to decrease, which is only achievable by an increase in production. That's why we need to expand to new markets outside the domain of family housing."
After having built their first public building in the region of Wallonia, a regional environmental services office, Paille Tech is hoping to convince the government to make the ecological choice and hire their services for the construction of schools and day-care centres. "Placing children in an environmentally sound and toxin-free environment should be a priority for the government and for parents." Adds Jean-Luc De Wilde, who strongly believes straw should become a mainstream construction material.
Along with other eco-construction companies in France, Paille Tech is helping to finance "Straw" a European initiative with the aim of building a large straw office space for a business incubator, which would house eco-construction enterprises and would also be a vocational training space for those looking to work in eco-construction.
With the strength, and fire-resistant properties of straw no longer a subject of debate, straw offers new and exciting opportunities for the future.