Gaiam staffers & Red Feather build straw bale homes for good people

Everett by Everett | October 31st, 2008 | 16 Comments
topic: Gaiam Happenings, Giving Back, Green Living

Last month Gaiam gave two team members paid time off to volunteer for the Red Feather Development Group straw bale house project on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. I was one of the lucky employees given the chance to learn hands-on about straw bale building techniques and the unique culture of the friendly Native American Hopi Tribe. Below are some memories and photos that Raphael Schiffman (of Real Goods) and I brought back.

Building frames for the windows & doors after foundation (with radiant floor heating!) dried.

Building frames for the windows & doors after foundation (with radiant floor heating!) dried.

We each went on different weeks of a four-week build. Raphael went first and was able to take part in some exciting parts of the process from the very beginning, including the actual framing of the house and building of the straw bale walls.

The home was built for a very special couple who run a small restaurant on the reservation. Neighbors stopped by throughout the project to donate their skills and hard work and help Red Feather complete the home on time.

Did You Know: Of the 2.5 million American Indians living on reservations, over 300,000 are homeless or living in life-threatening conditions. Many Native American homes lack basics like running water, electricity and sanitation.

Raphael & other volunteers taking a break on their straw bale sofa before starting the walls.

Raphael & other volunteers taking a break on their straw bale sofa before starting the walls.

The best part of volunteering with Read Feather (other than the great food!) is the camaraderie. Every volunteer contributes in their own unique way to the construction of the home and the positive dynamic of the group. A Red Feather volunteer is always surrounded by good people and good vibes.

Did You Know: There are two different ways to support the roof on a straw bale home – Frame-supported or bale-supported. In this particular home, the straw bales actually bear the load of the roof. Alternatively, a traditional frame could have been built, which would have supported the structure in much the same way that most American homes are built — but with MUCH better insulation!

Finally getting to work on the straw bale walls.

Finally getting to work on the straw bale walls.

With so many people working together the straw bale walls went up quickly and easily. Although I wasn’t around for it, I hear that the plastering was another story…

Straw bale steps used when putting up the trusses.

Straw bale steps used when putting up the trusses.

Straw bale homes really lend themselves to the do-it-yourself mentality. With the help of some friendly neighbors and volunteers, Redfeather is able to construct a house from start to finish in as little as one month. It’s all about team work!

Did You Know: The Hopi have been able to adapt to the many agricultural challenges of their arid desert climate by using some innovative methods like dry farming in the washes or valleys between the mesas and gardening on irrigated terraces. Some of the garden terraces in Bacavi (the village where we built this house) have been in use since, approximately, A.D. 1200.

An elderly Hopi poet from the First Mesa wrote me a poem about farming after I told him that organic gardening is a passion of mine.

Now it's starting to look like a house!

Now it's starting to look like a house!

He made me promise not to publish it anywhere but it is a beautiful tale of the dedication a Hopi man has to his field of corn, how he walks up and down the steep mesa in the hot sun each day to tend his crops, and how much he enjoys watching his grandchildren grow strong as a result of his hard work.

Not all hard work: Hopi Petroglyphs

Not all hard work: Hopi Petroglyphs

Each week the new volunteers get to take a day off to experience Native American culture. I was privileged to attend a traditional dance on the First Mesa. Many Hopis do not want their pictures taken so I left the camera in the tent.

Did You Know: The Tutuveni Petroglyphs have been called the Rosetta Stone of the Hopi people?

The plastering of the walls took place in the week between Raphael’s departure and my arrival so, unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures of this process. Update: More pictures here.

Hopi believe Life emerged from the Grand Canyon.

Hopis believe life emerged from the Grand Canyon.

Arriving the day before orientation for my volunteer group, I decided to take that opportunity to go see the Grand Canyon. I hiked to a part where I could look around 360 degrees and not see another human being. I’m not a particularly religious person but I can see why the Hopi people believe this to be the spot where man first emerged from the womb of the Earth (click the photo to enlarge).

Did You Know: The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, an average of 10 miles wide (15 miles at the widest point), an average of 4,000 feet deep (1 mile at the deepest point), and takes up over one million acres of land?

A late-night putty party.

A late-night putty party before painting the walls.


Everett painting some window trim.

Everett painting window trim.

Did You Know: In a radiant heated floor the warmth is supplied by hot-water tubes buried underneath the floor. In this setup, hot water heated from the solar collector on the roof is circulating through the tubes.

Being in the last group of volunteers to work on the house was great because we got to experience the finished product. But it was also hectic at times; as the days went by we knew Open House on Friday evening was drawing closer and closer. The good news is that we had a great team of volunteers and plenty of “busy-work” for inexperienced people such as myself to complete.

We each stayed for only a week while the Red Feather people and a handful of hardcore volunteers actually stayed for the entire month working day and night — hot sun, port-o-potties, outdoor showers, and tent-sniffing coyotes included. The images below are sights that make it all worth while: (Click to enlarge)

What a view this family will have!

What a view this family will have!

Edge of the campsite and the new home's front yard.

Edge of the campsite and the new home's front yard.

A Hopi family's finished house: Energy efficient, eco-friendly, beautiful and affordable. What it's really all about!

A family's finished home: Energy efficient, eco-friendly, beautiful and affordable. What it's really all about!

Comments

  1. I would like to thank Gaiam and Red Feather Development Group for giving me this very special opportunity. It makes me very proud to work at such a great company, and restores my faith in human nature to have been surrounded by so many great Red Feather staffers and volunteers on this project.

    Everett | October 31st, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  2. That is really awesome!

    Marissa | October 31st, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  3. That’s a really great thing to do, and it looks like it was a lot of fun. Great pics by the way! It’s awesome that you have the opportunity to work for such a great company and I bet it’s extremely rewarding.

    Alex | October 31st, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  4. Wow. Awesome work you guys. The house is looking good.

    Look at the view, what a view!

    Afa | October 31st, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  5. WELL DONE! Very motivating/interesting build story.

    Jake Stern | November 6th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  6. Everett! How lucky you are to work for such a wonderful company. I am sure the family is ecstatic about their new digs. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. The pictures make me want to jump on a plane right now. I am excited to learn more about how I might be able to help out with a similar project.

    Jacquelyn | November 6th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  7. What a wonderful project. You’ve done an excellent job. And, what a perfect place to build it!

    Tina Marie | November 8th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  8. Wow. Awesome work you guys. The house is looking good.

    Look at the view, what a view!

    dan | November 14th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  9. That’s pretty amazing, I never seen straw bale homes before. Very good pictures as well. Good job!

    Ty | November 15th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  10. That is so awesome. I live in New York and it gets below zero here. Would the straw bale home stand up to the low temperature? Where is the farthest northern home you built? Keep up the good work. What temperature is good for when you put up the plaster? This is so interesting.

    KAREN | November 28th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  11. Would a 54 yr. old strong woman be able to volunteer for the straw bale construction? Karen ps I have lived without running water, bathing outdoors and heating with wood for 10 yrs.

    karen | January 23rd, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  12. Straw bale is fast cheap and easy! If solar powered , automated devices can be designed for mowing grass, just think what devices can be designed for “Zero maintenance, Zero running cost’ off grid homes! Robot water distillers, greenhouse temperature controllers, yard lights, water pumps, automatic garden waterer’s, heat pump controllers, home ventilators, even scarecrows for garden patches! A new world is dawning, with capitalism firmly belted into its seat and no longer holding the noose of survival around our necks! Soon, due to great technological advances, we will be able to have safe (GRD) great republican depression survival shelters in place of McMansions, and compliments of the Obama administration! Now if we plant veggies instead of green lawns, to feed the soon to be starving masses of unemployed, and put to use the best of our technologies for sensible survival, America can come back strong again. You started it, get Obama’s policies to help finish it!

    Uncle B | January 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  13. Love the straw bale concept. It would be very good for Canadian reserves too, easy to build, cheap base materials and warm in Canadian winters, a lifesaver never thrown to Canada’s native people! The use of Swedish perfected “dry” toilets should be looked into, they are clean and easy to install, and cheaper than complete septic systems.

    Uncle B | February 14th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  14. Wow, it looks great! What an awesome project :)

    Amanda | April 10th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  15. good post/…

    ccocoo | May 7th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  16. This is a really amazing thing you guys are doing, it truly is. I would love to do something like build homes for people, and how awesome using straw bale! Keep up the good work guys, I mean that.

    saratoga condos for sale | August 25th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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