One Straw Bale at a Time: building sustainable homes
by Codi Newton
Robert Young started Red Feather Development Group in 1995 when he built a home for his "adopted grandmother" Katherine Red Feather on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
"It was the hardest thing that I've ever done," said Young. "I couldn't pick anything up. My hands were sore, but it was a good sore."
Two years later, Young sold his clothing business in Bellevue, Wash., moved to Bozeman, and now devotes his time and energy to reservation housing problems.
Since 1993, Red Feather has built structures and improved existing housing on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in Montana, the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, the Muckleshoot Reservation in Washington and the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Young met the seriousness of this housing issue at the breakfast table. A business trip to Taos, New Mexico, brought Young to a diner, scrounging for reading material. He stumbled across an article in "Indian Country Today" that told of three elderly Native Americans that froze to death on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Shocked and concerned, Young began researching and quickly became involved with the Nevada based "adopt-a-grandparent" program through which he met Katherine Red Feather. With many letters and a visit to Pine Ridge, their friendship grew - but so did Young's concerns about reservation housing. He was prompted into action in 1993 when Katherine took a fall and burned herself on the woodstove in her trailer.
Red Feather Development's noble mission didn't stop at Pine Ridge. According to Red Feather Development Group, 300,000 of the nearly 2.5 billion native Americans on reservations are either homeless or live in homes that are overcrowded. Many reservations feel defeated by the prevalence of poverty, said Young. "It was more hopelessness than anything, that nothing could change," said Young.
The poor treatment of homes on reservations can often be attributed to the lack of private homeownership on reservations. Young said about 90 percent of national reservation housing is provided by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) rentals. "If they (the homes) are not yours, you will not care for them," said Young.
Private land ownership is not possible for many Native Americans due to the large number of government controls on native lands. "They are not just hoops to jump through, they are flaming hoops," said Young.
Most reservations are located a significant distance from metropolitan areas, which can create a lack of job opportunity for many native Americans. There is also limited housing for the businesses that do exist on reservations.
Red Feather's mission involves working with communities - not just doing the work for them. "Offering hope is more to give someone than anything else," he said.
Lacking prior building or architectural knowledge, Young sought out the help of some knowledgeable friends and volunteers. They built the first five homes, including Katherine Red Feather's, using a stick frame structure. This process was extensive and time consuming. With not a penny to spare, Young asked himself, "how do we multiply the dollars we have?"
The group found they could improve the housing conditions of five or six homes for $50,000, the cost of building a single framed home.
Red Feather moved to a straw bale approach after much research and consultation with the University of Washington and Penn State University, and in 1999, the American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative was born. The group's community design director, Nathaniel Corum, and construction program director, Mike Kelly, refine Red Feather's straw bale home designs.
In 2001, Corum wrote a step-by-step guide for building a straw structure and the group uses this book as a guide for those interested in building their own projects and as a way to spread knowledge of the ease of building with straw.
The building process is usually prompted by the interest of a citizen or group on a reservation. A site is determined based on the specific needs and wants of the community. Red Feather works with each reservation to specifically include community resources. The bales used are usually bought from area farmers or reservations and other building materials are bought from local businesses.
Step two is basic structuring. Bales are stacked on a radiant-heat concrete slab to form the walls of a one-story structure that is suited for the specific project. Next, a three-sided wooden frame is placed atop the bales, making it a roof-bearing assembly. Then, workers apply stucco on the sides of the straw walls. Volunteers camp next to the project, spend nights around a fire, and eat good food from the large kitchen tent.
In the end, the building is as sound as any other and is up to four or five times as energy efficient as a stick-frame house, he said Young said families have saved enough in heating costs per month to pay the mortgages on their new homes. The thick walls also provide a cool escape from the dry summer heat of many Northern Plains reservations.
"We want to show that straw is a great way to build a convenience store or an elderly center," said Young.
Media attention has earned Red Feather many of its participants and much of its funding. Red Feather does not have any governmental or religious ties, so contributors give without any preconceived conditions.
Several other donations and awards have helped the group to grow. Oprah Winfrey awarded the group $50,000 in 2002. Young was later selected as a "hero" for the Volvo for Life program which earned Red Feather $50,000 a year and a new Volvo every three years for life. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, a founding member of the Red Feather Board of Directors, has donated much of his time, hard work, and money to Red Feather's efforts as well.
In Montana, Red Feather has put these dollars to work on the Crow and the Northern Cheyenne reservations. The Crow Nation boasted their first straw bale home in 1999 when Red Feather and University of Washington architecture students completed the construction of a two-bedroom, one-bath home for a tribal member. The Northern Cheyenne tribe has also worked in cooperation with Red Feather, first in 2001 and later in 2003, to complete the construction of two straw bale homes for tribal members. During 2002 a group of active Crow Agency kids, "Rez Protectors,' together with Red Feather, built a straw bale study hall for Crow elementary and middle school children. Most recently Red Feather has been talking with representatives of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Housing, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council and tribal nonprofit groups to set the groundwork for a reservation based sustainable housing program, a first of its kind for the Northern Cheyenne.
Some of Red Feather's future ambitions include working with architecture students from Montana State University, encouraging farmers to produce three-string straw bales that are best for construction, and to promote straw bale architecture into the mainstream. This mission has prompted Young and his wife, Anita, to sell their home and build a new house "the sustainable way," he said. "We have decided to put our money where our mouth is."
The construction of their new home just got underway in March. The goal is that the completed home will be built of at least 50 percent sustainable materials.
"Hopefully it will change the way that things will be done in the (Gallatin) Valley," said Young.
The housing issues facing native Americans are large, and the steps require diligence and commitment - but for the Red Feather Development Group, change happens just one bale at a time.
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