Each year, David Riley, an associate professor in Penn State's Architectural Engineering Department, takes a group of students, alumni and other interested parties to Montana. There, Riley leads the group in building homes and other community buildings for the Northern Cheyenne Indian tribe.

While it may sound similar to Habitat for Humanity, there’s something decidedly unique about the structures Riley’s crew builds: They’re made out of straw. Despite the experience of the first little pig whose house was blown down, these buildings are sturdy. And an added eco-bonus is that straw is a sustainable building material.

“People need houses,” Riley says, “and they need to be durable and affordable.”

Riley started the American Indian Housing Initiative (AIHI) in 1998. He used straw from the beginning for economic reasons. These days, straw remains the base building material, but Riley is aiming to make the houses even more sustainable. AIHI’s newest project will add renewable energy in the mix as the group continues to help address the housing crisis many Native Americans face.

More than 40 percent of the homes on reservations are overcrowded or in serious disrepair, and the Native American Indian Housing Council estimates there is an immediate need for more than 200,000 housing units. Adding to the problem is the high number of Native Americans living in poverty.

Straw, which is used to make strawbale houses, is “an abundant and low-cost material with over 140 million tons produced in North America annually,” says Jude Simpson, an employee at Penn State University’s Center for Sustainability, who has accompanied Riley to Montana. “Since it is a secondary agricultural waste product from grain production, its embodied energy is low.”

Other factors that make straw desirable are the material’s high insulation properties, its availability in Montana, and the organic feel of a strawbale home on the landscape. In addition, says Riley, the simplicity of the process allows people with little building experience to play a vital role in the construction process.

“It’s a housing concept that combines a holistic solution,” says Riley. “It’s appropriate for the region.”

AIHI’s initial aim was to build only houses. But Riley recognized that it was important to focus on the good of the entire Northern Cheyenne reservation, so he started with the first of five community-based projects, which include an Early Childhood Learning Center. The building was the most ambitious project to date, consisting of a strawbale shell and an energy-efficient design that allows maximum daylight lighting, floor radiant heating, and evaporative cooling. The learning center adheres to the guidelines of a  LEED Gold certification.

Currently, AIHI is focusing more sharply on sustainability and renewable resources. Riley is now constructing two prototype homes in conjunction with Penn State’s Solar Decathlon Team. One of the homes will be used as a renewable energy laboratory. The other will be a demonstration solar home on the campus of Montana’s Chief Dull Knife College, which Riley sees as the future of his strawbale construction.

Riley also sees his work constructing homes and public buildings as just the first step in helping the Northern Cheyenne tribe develop a viable and sustainable community. Already the tribe has constructed a factory on the reservation to manufacture sections of the building, particularly the part of the home that houses the HVAC and similar units. Most of the house is built from local products. “It’s a house that also creates jobs,” Riley says. “And the money used to build and buy the homes stays as close to the community as possible.”

“This type of building process adds value of engaging members of the tribe with the building process to help dispel apprehension about this relatively new and different building technique,” says Simpson. “I believe the Northern Cheyenne will embrace these housing solutions as a viable option to the present government housing programs.”

Story by Sue Marquette Poremba. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

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On an Indian reservation in Montana, students and volunteers build homes out of straw.