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Can Green Designs Solve A Housing Crisis?
Ben Block, 7 Jul 08

The walls of Elmer Bear Eagle's house are covered in mold. The black intrusion began in the basement. It crept up the sides. Now it blocks sunlight through the windows.

The problem is fairly common throughout the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Overcrowded conditions - homes built for four people have held more than 20 - contribute to high levels of indoor humidity, creating a mold haven.

The homes are also fraught with poor insulation, which Bear Eagle says leaves his mobile home uncomfortably exposed to the region's harsh summers and winters. "Here the climate is really extreme," he said. "These houses are fire traps."

Still, Bear Eagle is fortunate just to have a home. The tribal housing authority says 4,500 people - most of them Lakota Sioux - are waiting for subsidized housing on a reservation of approximately 40,000 people. Tribal leaders attribute the housing situation to high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, and youth suicide, though widespread unemployment is a factor as well.

To provide housing, improve living conditions, and stimulate economic growth, many within the reservation are turning to green building. More home designers are encouraging plans that would ideally reduce heating and maintenance costs. But with a growing housing demand that threatens the survival of many Lakota people, some say alternative construction materials are still unproven.

‘A Perfect Fit'

The wave of green building innovation is not unique to Pine Ridge. As individual green homes are built in towns across Indian country, mostly by volunteers, interest within the wider Native American community is growing. "Because of our community and our high needs - economic development and sustainability - [green housing] is a perfect fit for us," said Karen Diver, chairperson of the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.

Several government-led efforts have been launched this year to educate tribal leaders about green building design. Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Native Americans Programs (ONAP) organized a "Greener Homes National Summit," and the department has hosted smaller workshops around the country. "There's been strong participation by tribes in the regional training," said Randy Akers, an administrator for ONAP's Northern Plains office. "It's indicative of the interest tribes have in green buildings to improve their housing conditions."

On some of the poorer reservations, many say the government is not doing enough to provide for housing. Despite HUD's efforts to encourage green construction, some activists are convinced the federal government opposes alternative construction material because it would divert money from preferred federal contractors. "The people operating the housing system, HUD, they are opposing this because they have no profit in this," said Richard Boyden, founder of the Sioux advocacy organization Operation Morning Star.

The federal government says it offers energy-efficiency grants for Native American housing projects, but few tribal members are aware of the program. Green building design is also restricted across Indian country by the fact that many tribes are reluctant to pay extra for efficiency. "A green building strategy costs a little more upfront, yet we don't see our resources increase on a federal level," Diver said.

A Green Housing Rush

cob houseOn reservations such as Pine Ridge, the Sioux authority says they want to build green, but not if that means fewer homes would be provided. So instead of focusing their efforts on mainstream green building technologies, such as solar water heaters or more efficient windows, several organizations have introduced home designs that could cost less than traditional housing. A four-bedroom home costs a reservation as much as $261,000, Akers said, due to the high cost of importing building materials and creating new infrastructure.

One team of green building design experts has been training Sioux housing authorities and vocational schools to utilize strawbale construction. Straw is a cheap, local resource that could replace all the insulation and some of the lumber supplies now being imported from cities far from the reservation. The Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, a nonprofit development organization, received a $60,000 grant from the Sioux Rosebud Reservation to build a model strawbale home, said Bob Gough, the group's secretary.

The strawbale homes require more labor resources and training, but that adds to the attraction. "All these young people are going to need housing and they are going to need jobs. If we get them jobs building housing, it makes a lot of sense," Gough said.

The team also hopes to retrofit as many of the inefficient mobile homes that Pine Ridge residents have used since a devastating 1999 tornado. Strawbale insulation and mud siding would surround the trailer homes. The homes would also be rotated so the sun's heat could penetrate windows, providing heat through the winter, while an added roof would block the sun during the summer. "This is free heating," says Laura Bartels, president of Colorado-based consulting firm GreenWeaver Inc. "It's so simple, but it's not being done."

Tom McCann, executive director of Re-member, one of the oldest community development groups in Pine Ridge, says straw is not baled near the reservation, so acquiring large amounts of the material may be more costly than expected. "It defeats the purpose. The concept is to use material readily available here," he said.

Boyden, a former Kansas City radio talk show host, has been raising money for a plan to build geodesic dome houses on Pine Ridge. Standing between 22 and 36 feet (6.7 and 11 meters) tall, the rounded houses would be more efficient than traditional homes, especially if they were to incorporate radiant heating - hot water pipes that generate warmth from the ground up, Boyden said.

As for Elmer Bear Eagle, he says he may have found a solution through a more simplistic design. Working alongside Johanna Parry Cougar, founder of the housing organization Natural Villages, Bear Eagle and other volunteers are putting the finishing touches on a new cob house - a combination of soil, sand, and straw that are packed down and harden in the sun. For the house's foundation, they used discarded concrete slabs.

"The straw holds it together, sand gives it strength... It was snowed on, but the walls are still pretty solid," Bear Eagle said. The house is estimated to cost less than $8,000, but it has been a four year process. "A lot of people come by, check it out, they thought it was a cool idea. Already one family member wants it as soon as we can have it done."

McCann says that although the alternative designs are well intended, he is skeptical they can quickly meet the growing housing demand. He instead supports the addition of solar air heaters onto traditionally built houses. He is now searching for grants that would pay for the device. "We have got to break the propane cycle out here, we've got to use renewable energy sources, and we've got to do it now," he said. "Folks on the reservation are scared for this upcoming winter. They are scared they will die in their homes."

None of these plans have been built on the scale necessary to prove that they can be affordable and practical. Tribal leaders say they are interested in any construction designs that reduce energy costs, but an immediate answer has become urgently needed.

"We want to make it so the heat cost won't be as high...just try to make it a very self-sufficient home," said Paul Iron Cloud, chief executive officer of the Oglala Sioux housing authority. "It's a challenge; it's a big challenge."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

Photo courtesy Cameron via Flickr

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