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Some companies will insure straw-bale homes

A growing number of straw-bale homes are being built across the nation, with an increasing number of companies insuring them.

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Post-and-beam homes

"It's not routine, but we do insure them."

Straw-bale homes come in two basic styles: Some use ordinary post-and-beam construction with straw-bale insulation. Others use a structural method, known as Nebraska style, where the bales support the roof.

In post-and-beam homes, a fairly typical wood, steel or concrete framework is erected. Then bales of straw are placed in the walls as insulation

"Straw-bale homes are actually a little more prevalent out here in Arizona," says George Vince, an agent with Farm Bureau Insurance. "It's still a small percentage of our business, but we do more straw-bale homes every year. Some weeks we'll insure more straw-bale homes than regular homes."

A distinctive feature of the homes is the walls. On average, straw-bale walls are 18 to 24 inches wide. Other than that, the homes can appear as ordinary or unusual as the architect and homeowner desire.

Nationwide Insurance issues policies for the occasional straw-bale structure. "They're really nice homes," says Nationwide agent Ed Taylor, who wrote a policy for a straw-bale home in Virginia. "I don't know any reason that an insurance company would not take them, except for not knowing anything about them."

In Taylor's case, he had sold insurance to the homeowner in the past, and also knew something about straw-bale homes. "The underwriters were not familiar with it, so I went out and took pictures for them," he says. "It wasn't any problem getting it insured."

Nebraska-style homes

Many insurance companies are hesitant to issue policies for homes that use straw-bales as the support walls. In these homes, the bales tend to be secured by metal rods and are often covered with wire for added strength. Then plaster or cement stucco is applied as a finish.

George Vince of Farm Bureau Insurance says his company will insure either type of straw-bale home in Arizona. "We don't see any problems insuring them. We don't have any special criteria. In fact, there's nothing on the insurance application that says these are straw-bale homes."

Cost-effective, energy-efficient

Fans of straw-bale construction say the homes are cost-effective, since straw is cheaper than fiberglass insulation. Enthusiasts also claim straw bales are more energy efficient than fiberglass. A U.S. Department of Energy report, "House of Straw", supports that claim.  The report claims straw-bale houses often have lower heating and cooling costs than conventional homes.

In addition, straw-bale advocates refute concerns about straw catching fire more easily than traditional insulation. In fact, straw-bale supporters say the homes are more fire resistant than conventional houses.

"It's not fireproof, but it is hard to burn."

"The straw is baled very tightly," says Taylor. "It's so tightly compacted that the air can't get in. It's not fireproof, but it is hard to burn." Taylor claims on a scale of one to 10, with one being a home that is completely fireproof, a straw-bale home would be "a three or four, while most homes are a 10. It just won't burn."

Despite those claims, not every insurance company is sold on the merits of straw-bale construction. A spokesman for State Farm says his company does not insure any straw-bale homes. "We have concerns about the damageability and reparability of these homes," says Kip Diggs of State Farm. "We also haven't had many inquiries about insuring them."

Diggs says his company's stance could change if a number of people inquired about the coverage, and State Farm thoroughly investigated the coverage potential.

Other companies say the decision to issue coverage would be made on a case-by-case basis.

"The bigger companies don't change easily, they're more like battleships," says Vince. "We spent three months investigating straw-bale homes. It's a standard application and a regular home policy."

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