When you see a bale of straw, it doesn’t really capture your imagination. It might have some use in cattle rearing, you’d probably think, but that’s about it. Mostly, it’s a waste product.
Yet one German architect, Marcel Breuer, saw it differently. He saw the humble straw, and dreamt of construction. Strawtec, which has been operational in Rwanda since 2016, is today putting the ideas he developed into practice.
With its technology which presses wheat and rice straw into strawboard panels to be used as walls, ceilings and floors, it constructs houses quicker, cheaper and more versatile than it can be done with conventional building materials, yet certainly not inferior in quality. That aspect of quality might sound a bit surprising, as Strawtec’s CEO, Armin Burckhardt, admits.
“For a new product like Strawtec, it takes a while to get the awareness of the market,” he says. “People are still sceptical because straw looks like grass so they think it’s not durable or fire-resistant. Basically, people have a lot of questions regarding the durability, which is a legitimate concern when you’re buying a house. That’s why we want to show people that we can build a real house.”
For this reason, Strawtec conceived Gisozi Heights, a high-end realestate project which in its first phase will consist of 26 luxurious homes, which were developed in collaboration with Thoms Interior Design. Two of them have already been finished (and the concrete foundations of the others have been laid), which is why Strawtec organised a grand inauguration mid-December to show that straw isn’t a cheap or weak construction material.
“We have different typologies of houses which can be customised,” Burckhardt explains. “For the outside, for example, we can add stone cladding, which is more expensive, but it’s all the customer’s choice.”
“With Gisozi Heights, we wanted to give Kigali a level of quality that it had not seen in the residential real estate development so far. We are targeting slightly below $200,000 for a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house with housekeeper’s quarters. But it all depends on the finishes, the customer’s needs,” he adds.
The project will be developed in three phases, and Strawtec expects to start the second one of 40 houses in the second half of next year. The estate will contain a mix of 3-storey duplex, 3-storey corner triplex and 2-storey centre triplex houses.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Strawtec is now abandoning the affordable construction market, in which it has already proven its mettle. At the recent Made in Rwanda expo, for example, the company built a small demonstration house in only seven days, much faster than any other construction company could achieve.
It earned Strawtec the award for the best exhibitor in construction, and the Private Sector Federation was so impressed that it kept the house on permanent display at its grounds, where anyone interested can visit it to see exactly what a compressed-straw house looks and feels like, and how well it withstands the elements.
“We can go for any market, from affordable to high-end, we can build houses for anybody,” says CEO Burckhardt. For lower-end housing, Strawtec is talking to the government to see how it can help in the construction of grouped settlements.
“The government is targeting to build 380,000 affordable houses every year; this means there is a lot of demand and we want to be right there to play our part. The good thing about our technology is that it doesn’t require much, so we are ready for settlements but we need the support of the government. We need a large project to show what we can do,” Burckhardt says.
And in addition to developing its own housing projects, Strawtec will continue to work with other developers.
It is no surprise that Strawtec won the construction trophy at the Made in Rwanda expo, as much of the material used in their houses is locally sourced. The straw is bought from local wheat and rice farmers, for whom this would otherwise be waste, and who have been trained on how to properly process the straw.
The paint used in the houses is also purchased from local manufacturers, and even the steel Strawtec uses is adapted locally.
“We import the steel coils, but they are manufactured according to our needs here,” Burckhardt notes.
Another thing that makes Strawtec stand out is that construction is quicker and more versatile. As the panels are prefabricated at its factory in the Special Economic Zone, the actual construction of a house is much faster.
And as is the case at Gisozi Heights, the standard designs of the houses can much easier be modified to a customer’s preference. In the same way, when a house-owner wants to do some major renovation or modification, or for instance change electric cabling inside a wall, it can easily be removed instead of having to be demolished as is the case with a brick wall.
With all these advantages, there is little doubt that we will soon start to see more and more houses built with Strawtec’s technology – both in the high-end and affordable markets.