Like many living in Utah’s Moab Valley, Laurel Hagen struggled to find affordable housing. As the director of a local nonprofit group, she made a good living, but her salary couldn’t keep pace with escalating rents and property values in the growing resort community. She lived in several mobile homes—each worse than the last, she says—before purchasing a half-acre of land on the outskirts of town. She took up residence in a one-room shed on the property and made do without running water and electricity, all in hopes of saving enough money to build a small house. But local authorities derailed her plan with a crackdown on land-use codes that forced Hagen off the property.
Enter Community Rebuilds (CR), a local nonprofit that recruits students and volunteers to build affordable, energy-efficient straw bale homes for the low-income workforce in Utah’s Moab Valley. The group had recently finished its pilot home and was looking for its next project. Hagen met the program’s income qualifications and, with CR’s assistance, acquired financing through a federal loan program. Within the year, Hagen was back on her property, living in a three-bedroom, one-bath straw bale home.
“Working with CR was the solution I needed, and their commitment to natural building and education fit with who I am,” Hagen says. “Everywhere I went, people in town asked me how the house was coming along. It was a real community effort.”
Now in its fourth year, CR is finishing its fifth home this spring, and three more homes are scheduled for summer and fall. So how is this small-town nonprofit thriving? The answer: A labor force of unpaid volunteer interns, mixed with straw, sand, clay, and wood. The “dirt-cheap” materials needed for straw bale construction make CR’s homes more affordable to build—plus, the insulating 18-inch-thick walls reduce the need for mechanical heating and cooling, which is especially important considering the area’s wide temperature fluctuations.
Every CR home uses the same plan developed by straw bale architect Wayne J. Bingham (wjbingham.com). The passive solar design includes southern glazing, east-west orientation, smaller west-facing windows, and 30-inch-deep eaves, which help shade the windows in the summer and protect the exterior plaster. While the $100,000 price tag (about $87 per square foot) for a 1,150-square-foot home might not seem like a bargain, the home is outfitted with quality finishes, metal roofing, new energy-efficient appliances and in-floor radiant heating—among other features. In Moab, where straw bale builders are scarce and charge a premium, the cost would be almost double without CR’s construction services.
Loans for CR homes are made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Housing program, which helps low-income individuals or households build, purchase, or repair homes in rural areas. CR founder and executive director Emily Niehaus convinced USDA Rural Development staff to allow Section 502 loans to be used for straw bale homes.
“The fact that the USDA stands behind our mission gives straw bale construction and passive solar design mainstream legitimacy. It’s a big step for the natural building movement,” Niehaus says. “Often, the mortgage payments are lower than what homeowners were paying to heat, cool, and maintain their old single-wide trailers.”
While working as a mortgage broker, Niehaus saw the need to create higher-quality affordable housing in the valley. “Roughly 35% of our local workforce lives in trailers or mobile homes that are beyond repair. Plus, these units are highly inefficient and expensive to operate. Utilities and maintenance can run $300 to $500 per month and because banks view these homes as liabilities, not assets, owners can’t get conventional loans to make improvements,” she says. “The idea was to replace the old single-wide trailers with new, energy-efficient homes, one at a time.”
Niehaus brainstormed with local builders and began taking courses in natural building. After attending a conference held by the Colorado Straw Bale Association, she was sold on the idea of straw bale construction.
“What I learned was that there aren’t a lot of professional builders educated in natural building and straw bale construction. I saw an opportunity to dovetail two needs with one program that would train emerging professionals while building affordable, energy-efficient housing,” Niehaus says.
CR’s program accepts eight interns for each home. Interns are unpaid, but receive a monthly food stipend and free housing in a communal house provided by CR. Working under licensed contractors and the direction of expert natural building instructors, interns build a home from foundation to finish in four months, typically working 40-hour weeks.
CR relies on interns to keep down construction costs and is strongly committed to their education and mentoring. “Every moment is a teaching moment. Not only do we show them practical skills and techniques, but we also explain the science behind our decisions, like the sizing of the eaves for passive solar design or the considerations for straw bale construction in different climates,” says Erik Plourde, CR construction supervisor, who is one of four CR staff members.
Conferences, field trips, and workshops—like a two-day on-site course in basic photovoltaic installation provided by instructors from Solar Energy International—supplements the building training. The hope, Plourde adds, is that sponsorships and funding will one day allow solar-electric systems to be standard on every home CR builds.
CR building apprentice Kate Heath is a graduate of the internship program. “In a few months, I learned the building skills to go out on my own,” says Heath, who came to the program with a liberal arts degree and no building experience. “Many straw bale courses have you build a shed, but part of what makes this experience so special is that you are building a home for someone and becoming a part of their story.”
Hagen’s story continues. A year later, she is enjoying the comforts of her new home. She pays “virtually nothing” to heat and cool her home. “The house regulates itself and remains comfortable on its own most of the year. I ran the swamp cooler for about two weeks during a heat wave and relied mainly on the woodstove for heat in the coldest months. The straw bale and passive solar design did the rest,” she says. “I’ll be very happy staying here for the rest of my life.”
CR opened a second chapter in Gunnison, Colorado, and hopes to replicate its model in other communities. Funding for CR’s administration is derived from federal grants and donations. To learn more or make a donation: communityrebuilds.org.