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Straw-bale houses -
nonviolent technology
and peace with Nature


Vicky Rossi - TFF Peace Antenna


Vicky Rossi's conversations with peace visionairies around the world
are listed at her CV page
here and collected here



May 22, 2006


Peace Antenna interview with Dr. Evgenyi Shirokov, Head of Belarusian Division of the International Academy of Ecology, Head of Belarusian HABITAT Center.*

The Belarusian Division of the International Academy of Ecology (IAE) is a non-governmental organization, which was founded in 1992 by Belarusian scientists concerned about environmental sustainability. The Belarusian Division of the IAE currently has 68 members. It aims to support sustainable development in Belarus through the implementation of various ecological, anti-nuclear and cultural projects.

Dr. Evgenyi Shirokov is the head of the Belarusian Division of the International Academy of Ecology and also the head of the Belarusian HABITAT Centre. He has written about straw-bale houses here.

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, is the United Nations agency for human settlements. It is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all (1).


Urbanization: Facts and Figures (2)

• In 1800, only 2% of the world's population was urbanised.

• In 1950, only 30% of the world population was urban.

• In 2000, 47% of the world population was urban.

• More than half of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2008.

• By 2030, it is expected that 60% of the world population will live in urban areas.

• Almost 180,000 people are added to the urban population each day.

• It is estimated that there are almost a billion poor people in the world; of this over 750 million live in urban areas without adequate shelter and basic services.

Regional Comparisons

• The population in urban areas in less developed countries will grow from 1.9 billion in 2000 to 3.9 billion in 2030.

• In contrast, in developed countries, the urban population is expected to increase very slowly, from 0.9 billion in 2000 to 1 billion in 2030.


Vicky Rossi: Which projects are being co-implemented by the Belarusian Division of the International Academy of Ecology and UN-HABITAT?

Evgenyi Shirokov: The Belarusian Division of the IAE was selected as a finalist for the 1999 World Habitat Award for outstanding human settlements. Candidates for the World Habitat Awards are expected to present projects that offer sustainable futures for resident-dwellers by providing practical and imaginative solutions - large or small, urban or rural - to current housing problems with a view to encouraging their replication in other countries.

The Belarusian Division of the IAE's national project for healthy, natural, low-energy, social housing made from local renewable materials was awarded a finalist's certificate, signed by Dr. Klaus Topfer, acting Executive Director of the UN Centre for Human Settlements (UN-HABITAT). The project focused around Chernobyl residents and various other socially unprotected groups in Belarus.

The main idea behind the project was that residents could build really sustainable, healthy, economically viable and energy-efficient straw-bale homes by themselves or with the support of construction firms using "soft" state loans - "soft" in the sense that loan repayment conditions were 5% per year, to be repaid over a 40 year period - or minimum capital investment - 40% less than usual.

In 2002, we took part in a special UN-HABITAT mission in Belarus dealing with the problems that have resulted from the Chernobyl disaster. The main challenge is how to provide social housing for more than 150,000 people, who have had to move out of the contaminated territory.


Vicky Rossi: To what extent has the Belarusian Division of the International Academy of Ecology been involved in straw-bale construction?

Evgenyi Shirokov: In conjunction with our partners, we were the first to construct straw-bale houses in Belarus and the former USSR. We worked with Solar Energy International, an American NGO, as well as with Heimstatt Tschernobyl, a German NGO. We inspired the architects, construction firms, the Ministry of Architecture and Construction and other officials to pay attention to this sustainable technology and to work with it.

Now we have become the focal point for straw-bale housing and we are transferring our experience and know-how to other countries. This information work that we are currently carrying out to promote straw bale housing and energy efficiency is supported by Acid Rains, a Swedish NGO.


Vicky Rossi: When were the first straw-bale houses built in Belarus? What was the stimulus for this innovation?

Evgenyi Shirokov: In conjunction with Solar Energy International, we constructed the first straw-bale house in 1996, during the seminar entitled "Transfer Straw-Bale Technology". The stimulus was the need for healthy, inexpensive, low energy housing for Belarusians affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe. It was essential that these homes could be constructed in a very short time period and that they would meet the principles of sustainable development. In 1997-98, four official straw-bale houses were constructed, this time by the State in the Gomel region of Belarus and, after some formal tests had been carried out, the Ministry for Architecture and Construction recommended that straw-bale technology become more wide-spread.


Vicky Rossi: So, are the straw-bale projects, which are currently being implemented, NGO lead and financed, or are they mainly government initiatives?

Evgenyi Shirokov: The first straw-bale construction project was implemented and financed by our NGO together with Solar Energy International. The next four houses were constructed and financed by the State with NGO information support and participation. Straw-bale homes constructed since then have been projects of the State, business and private owners.

This year, 2006, the local authority in the Gomel region plans to construct more than 150 straw-bale houses. Our NGO now works as an information centre for straw-bale housing: it holds an annual international straw-bale seminar, prints practical guidance for straw-bale construction, etc.


Vicky Rossi: Could you give me 3 or 4 ways in which traditional houses potentially have a negative impact on the environment? In what way is the situation better with straw-bale homes?

Evgenyi Shirokov: Straw-bale housing is better for the environment than the more conventional "fossil fuel technology" for many reasons, including:

• Energy consumption/climate: straw-bale needs less than 150 times the amount of energy for construction and 3-4 times less energy for heating/cooling purposes;

• Straw is an extremely renewable and healthy material;

• Once the home's "life cycle" has ended - after about one hundred years- there is no problem with waste.


Vicky Rossi: I believe that in Belarus the temperature can fall as low as -25C in winter. Bearing this in mind, which technology is being used to heat straw-bale homes? In which ways is this technology cleaner and more energy efficient than more traditional methods of heating?

Evgenyi Shirokov: This winter, temperatures fell as low as -30C in Belarus. Straw-bale houses require 3-4 times less energy for heating purposes than houses built from bricks or other traditional materials. This is because of the huge capacity for heat isolation that straw-bale walls provide. In a straw-bale home, it is possible to use any heating system and there will always be a saving in the consumption of energy. However, we recommend the use of a woodstove/air heating system - the fuel is renewable, local and inexpensive.

We also have projects with a seasonal solar accumulation system and passive/active solar heating. However, currently, in Belarus, most homes use conventional heating systems run on fossil fuel imported from Russia. This situation is unsustainable from an economical, environmental and political perspective.


Vicky Rossi: I have heard that straw-bale housing provides particularly healthy living conditions for those who live in them. Can you clarify in which ways this is true?

Evgenyi Shirokov: Yes, that's right. Children from families affected by the radioactive contamination from Chernobyl, who live in straw-bale houses in Belarus, find that their health improves more rapidly than those who live in brick or wooden houses. Straw is a natural, bio-positive material, used widely in former times in holistic medicine, construction, roofing, etc.


Vicky Rossi: Straw is a fire hazard in the minds of many people; does that mean that straw-bale houses present more of a fire risk?

Evgenyi Shirokov: A pile of straw can be easily destroyed by fire in the same way as a stack of papers can. Straw pressed into a bale can also be destroyed by fire, but there is less likelihood of this - think about how difficult it is to burn a big book. Straw bale walls with stucco [a lime/cement mixture] have a high resistance to fire, categorized as F119 - the highest level of fire resistance after special testing under load (roofing load or similar). A metal frame, by contrast, has a fire resistance level of F15 and can be destroyed under load in 15 minutes.

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Vicky Rossi: What is the attitude of the people in Belarus to straw-bale homes?

Evgenyi Shirokov: At the beginning they used to smile - everybody knows the tale of the 3 piglets - actually my initial reaction was the same. But later, once they had visited our website, or had been to see one of the existing straw-bale houses, their comments changed to "it's unusual and interesting".

Then, when they had made the calculations for the savings on costs, energy consumption and the added health advantages of straw-bale houses, their comments were "it would be nice to live in a straw-bale house".


Vicky Rossi: Do you see a limited market for straw-bale housing, or are you of the opinion that it is something that could have a more widespread appeal in the future?

Evgenyi Shirokov: When we began with straw-bale construction 10 years ago, we were motivated by the idea of providing social housing - this is still true today. However, more and more people are becoming aware of climate change and sustainability issues as well as the rising cost of fossil fuels. Further, people now aspire to healthy living conditions. As such, every year, more and more people attend our straw-bale seminars - and not only from Belarus and CIS countries - then they order or construct straw-bale houses themselves. Belarus and Russia will enter the WTO next year -between now and then gas/fossil fuel prices will triple in Belarus. The global tendency for a rise in the cost of fossil fuel is clear to everybody. So straw-bale housing is set to have a great future, I think. The show must go on!


*This interview was obtained through the email exchange of information.


For further information, please contact:

Dr. Evgenyi Shirokov
Head of Belarussian Division of International Academy of Ecology
Masherov str. 29 -409
220002 Minsk


Tel: +375-17-2832511
Fax: +375-17-2860896




1. See here.

2. See here.




Building with Straw Bales in Belarus

The First Straw Bale Building in CIS

Inforse Europe - International Network for Sustainable Energy

Development of energy-efficient and environmentally-sound housing in Belarus and other countries (pdf)

Building with Bales in Belarus


Solar Energy International

Heimstatt Tschernobyl

Resources for Environmental Activists

The Last Straw

MacDonald, S. O. & Myhrman, M. Build it with Bales

The World Fact Book - map of Belarus


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