Greenie house of straw goes up in flames

IF THE story of the Three Little Pigs showed how vulnerable straw houses can be, the point was again illustrated in a recent case before the NSW Court of Appeal.

In 2007 Ian Reed was building a house near Orange, in the state's central west, using compressed straw bales for the external walls.

An owner-builder, he brought in tradespeople for more specialised jobs. One, a plumber, inadvertently set fire to the structure on January 12.

The court heard Bruce Warburton was soldering copper piping when his oxyacetylene torch ignited hand-packed straw behind a bathroom wall, burning down the building.

Mr Reed sued Mr Warburton in the District Court for negligence. After his claim was dismissed last year he appealed.

In the Court of Appeal, Justices John Basten and David Hodgson, and Acting Justice Kenneth Handley, overturned the earlier judgment, finding errors in the way the judge determined the issues in the case.

They ruled Mr Warburton was negligent, but only awarded Mr Reed $105,000 in damages - half the amount he sought - because he failed to tell the plumber about the hand-packed straw in the internal wall.

The court heard a straw bale had ignited when Mr Warburton was working in the kitchen, but was quickly extinguished with a bucket of water the men had on hand.

It was a different story when Mr Warburton worked on the bathroom, where Mr Reed had filled a gap in an internal wall with loose straw.

"It burnt back into the wall and roared,"' Mr Warburton told the District Court. "It just all ignited and flew straight up like a chimney."

Justice Basten said while Mr Warburton failed "to take reasonable care to avoid the risk of setting fire to the straw", there had been contributory negligence by Mr Reed.

Martin Urakawa, an architect with expertise in environmental design, said building with straw was part of a movement towards environmentally friendly building materials.

"People use it because they can build and shape it themselves and it's quick for them to put up," he said - but fire was, obviously "a drawback".


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