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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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)