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York EcoDepot, clad in ModCell panels
York EcoDepot, clad in ModCell panels
Installation of ModCell panel at York EcoDepot
Installation of ModCell panel at York EcoDepot

Press Release - 21 February 2007

Modern building with straw seeks to address climate change

Super-insulated, high-performance, low energy ‘passive’ buildings, built using renewable locally sourced carbon sequestrating materials. This is the vision of a research group, led by the University of Bath, seeking to bring straw bale construction into modern building practice through the development of modular prefabricated panels.

ModCell, Modular Cellulose, construction is the vision of Craig White, principal at White Design Associate architects in Bristol, and Tim Mander, structural engineer and a partner at Integral Structural Design in Bath. ModCell is a building system that utilises the excellent thermal insulation qualities of straw bale construction to form prefabricated, factory made, panels. A structural timber frame is ‘infilled’ with locally sourced straw bales, which are stacked to form a wall, compressed and pinned together for stability. The wall is then plastered using a protective lime render. Panel sizes can vary to suit project requirements, though at present the most common size in recent projects has been 3 m high x 2 m wide and just over 500 mm thick.

The first application of ModCell was in the new School of Architecture building at University of West of England’s Frenchay campus in Bristol in 2001. Subsequently ModCell has been used in a number of single and two storey buildings, including in 2006 York City Council’s new Eco-Depot.

Building with straw bales offers high levels of thermal insulation, typically around twice that currently required by building regulations, using an abundant agricultural by-product that can be harvested annually and at present has few other value-added applications. Straw-bale construction offers an important new market for the agricultural industry. During their growth cereal crops, as do all plants, sequestrate atmospheric carbon dioxide, and so by using the straw, and preserving it for the life of the building, offers a novel means of reducing greenhouse gases at a time when CO2 levels are too high.

The two-year research project, with total funding of £298k from The Department of Trade and Industry led Technology Programme and the six industrial partners, is looking at ways of further improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of prefabricated straw bale construction.

Pete Walker, Director of the BRE Centre in Innovative Construction Materials at the University of Bath, said: “Up to this point straw bales have largely not really been seen as a credible building material by much of the industry, even though straw has always been used in building for centuries, and straw bales have been used for about 100 years.

“Straw bale is an agricultural by-product, so in itself very cheap. It can be re-grown so is totally renewable, and can be collected from the local farm so saves on transport. Standard bales are 450 mm thick, and provide very high levels of insulation. The BRE sponsored Centre at Bath has became involved in this project after it carried out a prototype panel test for the York Eco Depot, one of the largest straw bale buildings in Europe.”

As well as White Design Associates and Integral Structural Design, the research team includes: Agrifibre Technologies, specialists in developing non-food crop applications for the agricultural industry; Lime Technology, specialist lime material suppliers; Eurban Construction, solid timber construction specialists; and, the Centre for Window & Cladding Technology, a leading centre of expertise in the field of building envelopes and glazing, based also at the University of Bath.

“The current project will optimise the design and construction process of ModCell and thoroughly test the system to ensure it meets the requirements of modern building. Work will include materials testing, further prototype panel tests, modelling the thermal performance of the straw bales, and monitoring building performance.”

Science and Innovation Minister, Malcolm Wicks said: "The UK has a proud history of innovation in science and technology. We believe that we must work with industry and academia to develop the marketable products and services of tomorrow, so that we can maintain our position as a leading global economy. That's why we're supporting this project, which not only has great potential to help our environment, but could establish the UK as a leading innovator in this area."

The BRE Centre in Innovative Construction Materials, launched in July 2006, is a research and development partnership between the University’s Faculty of Engineering & Design and the Building Research Establishment Ltd (BRE), the construction industry’s largest research and consultancy agency.

Further info about the Technology Programme:

The Technology Programme provides funding using two of the DTI's business support products: Collaborative Research & Development and Knowledge Transfer Networks. Over the period 2005-2008, £320 million in funding is being made available from DTI to businesses to support research and development in technology areas identified by the Government's Technology Strategy Board. This funding is increased by contributions from other Government Departments such as Defra (£30m), Regional Development Agencies and Devolved Administrations (£30m) and Research Councils (£26m).

The Programme is investing directly in new and emerging technologies and has been designed to help businesses work collaboratively with each other or with academic partners to develop technologies that will underpin products and services of the future.

In November 2006, DTI announced that, building on its success to date, the Technology Strategy Board would in 2007 become an Executive Non Departmental Public Body taking over responsibility for the delivery of the Technology Programme.

Since 2004, the Technology Programme has supported over 600 projects across 40 technology areas with a combined business and Government investment worth over £900m. 22 Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) have also been established with funding of around £40m over 3 years. For further information:

The University of Bath is one of the UK's leading universities, with an international reputation for quality research and teaching. View a full list of the University's press releases: