Lodge was the last straw for couple

Dave Lawrence and Donna Day outside Tikana Lodge, built of straw bales.
Dave Lawrence and Donna Day outside Tikana Lodge, built of straw bales.

The Southland Energy Conference on Thursday is putting its focus on sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. In the leadup, Alex Fensome takes a look at three of the most efficient buildings in Southland. Why did their owners make the choice to become energy-efficient? What's stopping others doing the same?

When Dave Lawrence told his mates he was going to build a five-star guest house out of straw, they laughed at him.

There were jokes about pigs and huffing, puffing and blowing it over.

Now, though, he's likely having the last laugh. Tikana Lodge, near Browns, is a beautiful property, a two-storey luxury retreat made out of straw bales.

"I would certainly use straw again," he said.

Mr Lawrence and his partner, Donna Day, chose straw bales because they liked the thick-walled look of old European houses.

"Straw bales were going to tick that box," he said. "Then there was the environment thing and the insulation values."

The Lodge took Mr Lawrence and his mate, builder Pete Shepard, two years to build.

That seems like a long time, but Mr Lawrence said it was just the two of them working.

"If you had a full team of builders, you could have built it in six months," he said.

Another factor which added to the build time was the design. Because it was going to be a five-star accommodation, Mr Lawrence didn't skimp on things an ordinary housebuilder could bypass, such as an elaborate inlaid floor.

A simpler building could be put up faster and would still get all the benefits of the straw bale construction.

It's not expensive to source straw.

Tikana used bales made from barley stubble, each one metre by half a metre.

To build a house, they are stacked together around metal support rods to form the walls. Then chicken wire is fitted on both sides of the wall, darning needles threaded inside to bind it all together, and finally layers of plaster are coated over the top.

The result is a building which not only looks good, but is supremely energy-efficient.

Straw bale walls are ten times as good for insulation as batts, Mr Lawrence said.

They hold the heat in and also block out sound from outside - although in the countryside at Browns there isn't much noise to worry about.

The Lodge has underfloor heating and the slate roof rests on beautifully weathered old bridging timbers.

Mr Lawrence said the Lodge was one of the first straw bale houses built in Southland, and some people weren't sure it could work in the Southern climate.

However, it's proven pretty good so far.

The only issue the couple have had with it is the propensity of the timber they used to shrink, which meant small gaps between the bale walls and the supporting timbers had to be filled in.

Despite the success of the Lodge's design, places like Tikana are still unusual.

Mr Lawrence said he thinks some people are put off by the hippy, ecowarrior image of building a house out of straw.

"I don't know if that perception puts mainstream people off," he said.

But he is a pretty mainstream guy, a retired vet. "I was an old hippy in my university days," he joked.

He thought the building sector did not know much about the potential of the material.

"If you went to a builder in Southland, or most builders, and said you wanted to build a straw bale house, you aren't going to get a favourable response."

He said he was lucky his friend, Mr Shepard, was keen on the idea.

Otherwise, there is not much expertise in the South Island, and there was't much know-how when it came to sustainable buildings.

Energy Conference organisers hope it will break down some of those barriers.