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General News    H3'ed 3/8/13

Community Rebuilds: Energy and Affordable Housing for Low Income Families

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(Article changed on March 9, 2013 at 19:13)

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According to World Resources Institute:

The distribution of environmental benefits (and costs) is determined largely by public policies and government practices. Too often, public policies favor affluent people and regions, enriching a few powerful political and economic elites while passing disproportionately large social and environmental costs on to poor and disenfranchised populations.

Poverty reduction--especially for the poorest--can be greatly enhanced through policies that promote fair distribution of natural resource benefits. In high-inequity, high-poverty countries, equitable access and fair distribution can be more effective than economic growth alone in reducing poverty. Such reforms are often most effective in countries where natural resources dominate local economies and natural capital is particularly significant in determining the overall distribution of wealth. Even small changes in these policies can have a large effect on building the assets of the poor and reducing poverty.

In today's political climate, benefits that are paid for by the people are being cut for the sake of lining the pockets of the elite. At this point, there is probably no sense in fighting to have this reversed. What we need to change is ourselves through reducing our dependence on corporations and government for our health and welfare. Regarding those who live in poverty during this time, we need to simply work towards neglecting the government while helping those in need through programs created by people that exhibit passion about the welfare of the people they love.

Community Rebuilds is such an organization of people.

Community Rebuilds aids low income-qualifying families in building affordable and ENERGY-EFFICIENT STRAW BALE HOMES . The organization is a nonprofit that provides assistance during all stages of the build. Before breaking ground the members of the organization act as free consultants for interested families, by connecting them with loans with low interest rates while supplying stamped architectural plans free of cost. During the build they then manage the building process and budget, while providing a labor force of unpaid volunteer interns. After construction is complete, they provide the families with free consultations in home maintenance and repair.

Thus the goal is to make the families self-sufficient. The organization is taking serious the philosophy that if one wants to feed the poor, teach them how to fish or her how to hunt, gather and grow healthy foods in their own yard or community garden.

Community Rebuilds reduces building costs by recruiting volunteer student interns to complete the bulk of the construction labor. This team then sticks to a simple architectural plan for each build, thereby limiting architectural and engineering costs. Local, "dirt cheap" building materials are used, especially straw bales. They also reduce cost by using as many recycled and donated building materials as possible. With this structure, they are able to reduce the cost of construction greatly. The homes cost $100,000, but would cost almost double without their services, particularly in the organizations home-base in Utah, where housing costs are high.

Emily Niehaus is the executive director of the organization. According to her, they've chosen straw bale as the main building material, because it's a locally available, highly insulative (R-value=40!), and very renewable resource. Moreover, especially using it in a south facing passive solar design, they are able to significantly limit future heating and cooling costs. Repairs are easily made with extra putty donated to the family by the builders. Home maintenance, heating, and cooling, thus remains affordable long after the structure is built.

Emily and Child by Emily Neihouse

Emily Neihouse with her child

The utilization of straw bales has been reported to have a huge impact on natural resources and air pollution. Each year, the United States burns or disposes of 200 million tons of "waste straw,' producing massive amounts of carbon dioxide. The use of straw as insulation furthermore reduces the need for initial energy outputs in regards to manufacturing. There is less embodied energy in straw as it is available in almost every local market, thereby reducing transportation costs and efforts. Straw is a renewable resource that has a one year growth/harvest cycle. By using this local, agricultural by-product as a building material, one is able to reduce energy expenditures, the amount of straw burned, and the use of fossil fuels needed for material transportation.

According to the Strawbale website (link below), a typical straw bale wall is roughly three times as efficient as conventional framing. Over the life of a typical thirty year mortgage, this kind of insulation can reduce energy costs by up to 75%, saving money and vital natural resources.

Many are concerned about fire. Its common sense since straw burns easily. Yet, according to the Straw Bale website: "The straw bale/mortar structure wall has proven to be exceptionally resistant to fire." In these tests, the flames took more than two hours to penetrate the plastered bale walls. Conventional framing built to commercial standards took only 30 minutes to one hour to burn. Due to their tight compaction, bales contain very little oxygen and thus resist combustion. It's reported to be like trying to burn a phone book. "Of course, loose straw is at risk for fire and should be cleaned from the job site daily. Walls should be plastered as early as possible, to increase their fire resistance." The inclusion of lime in homemade plaster adds to the safety, weather resilience, and durability of the home. Thus the conventional framing appears to be more a fire hazard than the straw bales. The straw bale website further states that the use of straw bale is resistant to bugs and other pests due to its densely packed bales which makes it hard for these pesky pets to walk around or breathe.

One of the most important myths that straw bale housing confronts for our culture is the idea of standardization. Community Rebuilds oftentimes looks at where a house is located, and determines how it is oriented in relationship environmental factors (where the sun rises, wind directions, etc). Thus houses on the same street will not all have front doors facing the street. Some may be pointing towards the sides of their neighbor's house. Others may be in the back. Standardization, the hallmark of American ingenuity (and disdain for the different, or creative), is thus confronted in the work of Community Rebuilds. The creative edge is left intact as well as building in relation to the Earth and not to a standardized drawing. Ah, to kill the nightmare of corporate standardization while kindling the dream of creative and affordable housing!

The straw-built style of housing also appears sufficient to carry heavy loads. In load bearing straw bale structures, the bales themselves carry the vertical loads. High density bales and proper compression are a must to ensure the bales will not settle under the weight of the roof assembly. In-fill structures rely on the framing to carry the vertical loads. Lateral loads, or shear strength, is carried by the wall assembly as a whole. The bales, the structural wire mesh, and the plaster all play a part in the handling of lateral loads. Recent engineering has shown bale wall assemblies to be structural sound even in the most volatile earthquake zones of California.

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Burl Hall is a retired counselor who is living in a Senior Citizen Housing apartment. Burl has one book to his credit, titled "Sophia's Web: A Passionate Call to Heal our Wounded Nature." For more information, search the book on Amazon. (more...)
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