Straw building to become Turtle Mountain college center

    Belcourt, North Dakota - Volunteers finish erecting the straw frame of an environmental science building for the Turtle Mountain Community College at Belcourt, July 15, 2004. Red Feather, a Montana nonprofit organization seeking to ease a housing shortage on reservations, is demonstrating straw-bale construction by building the center. AP/Minot Daily News photo by Jill Schramm

    Belcourt, North Dakota (AP)

    An environmental science center at Turtle Mountain Community College is being built from straw.

    Red Feather, a Montana nonprofit organization seeking to ease a housing shortage on American Indian reservations, is demonstrating straw-bale construction by building the center. Work started July 3.

    Volunteers from around the country and from Australia and Alberta, Canada, have joined local college students and staff members to work on the project.

    “We hope this building will provide a wonderful tool for this tribe to be able to teach this form of construction,” said Red Feather executive director Robert Young. “I think they are really going to see the benefit from this building, especially since it’s a community building. It’s going to be the finest, strongest building on the reservation.”

    The building, on a former church campground, will have an auditorium and classrooms. Red Feather is using straw bales purchased from the Navajo Tribe, which saw the business opportunity after being introduced to straw-bale construction.

    “This kind of construction is what we consider very community friendly, very volunteer friendly,” Young said. “We also want to offer low-income homes and get some of these families who are in desperate living situations into a stable situation, where they can raise their kids and think about a future. The way we can offer that is by really dramatically reducing the home costs.”

    By keeping construction simple so volunteers can do much of the labor, the cost of a new home can be reduced by 60 percent, he said. Owners learn to maintain the home by helping with construction.

    Straw is inexpensive, available, discourages insects and has a high insulation value, Young said. Straw-bale houses have been around for more than a century, he said.

    “It’s a tried-and-true method of building. It’s accepted building code in many states, if not most,” Young said. “We are trying to design it so it’s going to be absolutely low cost and very empowering for families to get involved.”

    Nathaniel Corum, the community design director for Red Feather, said the organization provides a basic design that people can reconfigure to create the layout they want.

    Turtle Mountain Community College got a federal Agriculture Department grant and state Commerce Department funding for the project.

    Stacie Laducer, director of a USDA Education Equity grant at the college, said the construction in Belcourt is exciting. She visited a Red Feather construction project for the Crow in Montana last summer.

    “It’s overwhelming. It’s better than what I imagined,” Laducer said. “Red Feather has just been a positive organization to work with.”

    The idea of a straw house intrigued four of the college’s vocational students enough to get involved.

    “I was pretty excited to just experience something so unique,” student Jacob Laducer said.

    Another student, Jeff Grant, said he believes the straw homes will be well received on the reservation because the high insulation value is so good for cold winters.

    Community members interested in learning how to build a straw house have been able to stop by and help, along with volunteers from Red Feather projects in other states.

    Matts Myhrman and his wife, Judy Knox, are longtime straw-construction promoters. Working with bales makes it easy to change the design, Myhrman said. A storm blew part of the Belcourt building askew and soaked some bales, but workers easily repaired the damage.

    The Belcourt building, like other Red Feather projects, will be completed with stucco. Myhrman said he hoped to experiment with clay soil near the construction site to see what kind of mud plaster might work.

    Myhrman believes straw houses got a bad rap from the children’s story, “The Three Little Pigs.” History shows no wolf has ever blown down a straw house built to the proper specs, he said, and skeptics are won over when they actually see a straw-bale building.

    “You can tell them about it. You can show them pictures,” he said. “But what generally puts people over the edge is being in one.”

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