Straw-bale construction was greatly facilitated by the mechanical hay baler, which was invented in the 1850s and was widespread by the 1890s. It proved particularly useful in the Nebraska Sandhills. Pioneers seeking land under the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1904 Kinkaid Act found a dearth of trees over much of Nebraska. In many parts of the state, the soil was suitable for dugouts and sod houses. However, in the Sandhills, the soil generally made poor construction sod; in the few places where suitable sod could be found, it was more valuable for agriculture than as a building material. Straw is a large “waste” product from the agricultural industry, which should be fully utilized as a sustainable building material.
The third documented use of hay bales in construction in Nebraska was a schoolhouse built in 1901 or 1902. Unfenced and unprotected by stucco or plaster, it was reported in 1902 as having been eaten by cows. To combat this, builders began plastering their bale structures; if cement or lime stucco was unavailable, locally obtained “gumbo mud” was employed. Between 1896 and 1945, an estimated 70 straw-bale buildings, including houses, farm buildings, churches, schools, offices, and grocery stores had been built in the Sandhills. In 1999, 2173 surviving bale buildings were reported in Arthur and Logan Counties, including the 1928 Pilgrim Holiness Church in the village of Arthur, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Since the 2000s straw-bale construction has been substantially revived, particularly in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. However, Straw-bale construction does encounter issues regarding building codes depending on the location building.
Straw bale building typically consists of stacking rows of bales (often in running-bond) on a raised footing or foundation, with a moisture barrier or capillary break between the bales and their supporting platform. There are two types of straw-bales commonly used, those bound together with two strings and those with three. The three string bale is the larger in all three dimensions. Bale walls can be tied together with pins of bamboo, rebar, or wood (internal to the bales or on their faces), or with surface wire meshes, and then stuccoed or plastered, either with a cement-based mix, lime-based formulation, or earth/clay render. The bales may actually provide the structural support for the building (“load-bearing” or “Nebraska-style” technique), as was the case in the original examples from the late 19th century. The plastered bale assembly also can be designed to provide lateral and shear support for wind and seismic loads.