Straw Home building to help homeless, poor, environmnent FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 14 Apr 1999 20:46:35 -0700 (PDT)

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Can anyone cite LINKS for Straw-Bale Home construction and benefits?
FWD  East Contra Costa News and Environmnent News - April 11, 1999


     Cerrito architect helps people all over the world build
     unusual houses in an effort to conserve resources

     By Tom Lochner

EL CERRITO -- Imagine Montana -- only colder. And less densely populated.

That's Mongolia, in a capsule.

"It's the Big Sky Country of Asia," says Kelly Lerner, an El Cerrito
architect who has made the remote, high-desert nation her workplace for
much of the past two years.

In the capital city of Ulan Bator, she built houses of straw.

With winter temperatures routinely dipping to 40 below, Mongolians face
prohibitive heating costs in their traditional gers -- round, felt-covered
tents suited to an ancient, nomadic herder's lifestyle. Now, as the nation
stumbles through post-Communist withdrawal toward a market economy, more
and more Mongolians are moving from the countryside to the capital.

There's a growing homeless population, especially children, caught in a
clash of ancient rural customs and modern urban reality.

"The culture is thus that if the family is separated, and someone
remarries, a lot of times the new children aren't accepted and so they're
sent out on the street," says Lerner, 34. "A lot of these children spend
the winter underground."

She means it literally. Ulan Bator is heated by four coal-fired central
heating plants that pump hot water and steam through the city via
underground pipes.

"A lot of these kids, the only way they stay warm is in the tunnels with
the steam pipes," says Lerner.

And so, over the past two years, Lerner -- contracted by the United Nations
Development Program and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency -- has
finished 12 clinics, a housing complex for homeless families and a
two-story training center for the Mongolian Women's Federation, using straw
bales as building material.

Straw bale building is growing in the United States, lauded for its energy
efficiency and preservation of natural resources -- the same reasons Lerner
cites for its use in Mongolia.

"The world doesn't contain enough resources to house all the people in the
world in the kind of houses we have," Lerner says.

"Straw bale construction is literally making walls out of straw bales, like
Lego blocks," she explains.

The houses, which are cheap to build as well as practical, are part of what
she dubs "my hundred-percent grass solution."

"My whole approach to architecture is, I'm trying to get away from using
old-growth wood," she said last week as Aaron Copland music thundered in
the background. Her El Cerrito house sits in the middle of a yard full of
bamboo garden furniture and implements, more examples of her grass solution.

Straw-bale houses are not only energy-efficient but also durable, say
proponents. Among them is Al Courchesne, who owns Frog Hollow organic fruit
farm in Brentwood, where Lerner built a straw-bale farmworkers' house in

"You could huff and puff and never blow this straw house down. It's
beautiful to look at, structurally very solid -- and the insulation value
is unmatched," said Courchesne.

"It gives you incredible insulation against heat, cold and wind -- and
noise," Courchesne continued. "When you're inside this building, you don't
hear the traffic, the congestion and the stresses and strains of modern-day

A straw bale classroom is being built at the East Bay Waldorf School in
Richmond. Woodworking and gardening classes will be held there.

Another East Bay example of straw-bale building is Arroyo del Valle
Commons, a rental complex in Livermore for developmentally disabled adults.

Elsewhere, in San Rafael, there is the Santa Sabina retreat center at
Dominican College, which Lerner built.

And in Yuba City, a chapter of the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity is
building four straw-bale houses for the poor with the help of local

"The major advantage for us is that the families' utility bills will be
greatly reduced," said Bill Williamson, president of Habitat for Humanity
of Yuba-Sutter.

He said heating costs will be one-fourth that of a conventional home, while
building costs are comparable.

For Lerner, there also is a strong social aspect to her work.

"They're a lot of fun to build," she says. "It's like an Amish
barn-raising. Everybody gets involved."

The reference to the Amish isn't casual. Lerner grew up in an Indiana
community of Mennonites, a Christian sect from which the Amish sprang.

She attended a Mennonite high school and got her bachelor's degree at
Goshen College, a Mennonite college with the motto "Culture for Service."

"It sort of sums up why I'm doing what I'm doing," she says. "You get
educated to serve other people."

For a few years, Lerner was a self-employed potter. Then she worked for the
Girl Scouts of America, doing community outreach to American Indian
communities. She returned to school in 1990, earning her architecture
degree at the University of Oregon.

>From 1995 to 1997, she worked for a Berkeley firm. Today she has her own
business, One World Design of El Cerrito.

The straw-bale method is "kind of new," Lerner says, "but it's
actually old." Nearly forgotten in the United States, it has re-emerged in
the '90s as a cheaper and environmentally safe alternative to wood.

Straw has been used as building material for centuries in many countries.
In the United States, straw-bale construction was pioneered in the Sand
Hills of Nebraska a century ago, after patenting of the first straw-baling

"There were no trees, and the sod was too sandy for sod houses," says
Lerner. "They looked around for whatever resources they had."

Aside from pockets of straw-bale building in North Dakota, Wyoming and
Nebraska, the technique was almost dead in the United States by World War II

The 1980s brought a revival in the Southwest that spread across the nation
as environmentally conscious builders rediscovered interesting properties
in straw-bale building: energy efficiency, resiliency and ease of assembly.

The bales are reinforced by rebar pins or wire mesh. Plaster is applied on
the inside, stucco on the outside. Add a roof and you have a house that can
weather pretty tough conditions, backers say.

"Wood and straw are not that different," Lerner says. "Straw is just
another cellulose fiber, similar to wood, and as long as you maintain it,
it will last indefinitely."

If kept dry, the straw won't decompose, according to the Pacifica-based
California Straw Building Association, whose founding members include
Lerner. Even intermittent moisture and heavy rain pose no problems if they
are followed by periods of wind and dryness and the straw is allowed to

Because the straw is compacted, it doesn't burn easily, proponents say.
Only loose straw is a fire hazard and should be sealed with plaster. The
stucco and plaster finishes provide added fire protection.

The houses can be put up quickly and cheaply, without a foundation.

"I've been thinking a lot about Kosovo," Lerner says. "They're very good
for temporary housing, for disaster housing."

Or they can be built to last, with a good foundation.

";We've got straw-bale houses that are over 90 years old" she said.

Northern China's Hebei Province, where Lerner built a school in 1998, was
rocked by an earthquake Feb. 9 that registered 6.0 on the Richter scale.

"The school came through unscathed," she says.

Wednesday, Lerner is off to Argentina to teach hands-on straw-bale
workshops to builders from Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. While there,
she hopes to build a clinic.

In May, she will return to China and Mongolia. In China, she will work on
an Adventists project of 100 buildings. In Mongolia, she will train local
people in the building method.

Lerner doesn't make much money doing this kind of architecture, she says,
but that's OK with her.

"There's 'big A' architecture and 'little a' architecture," she says. "What
I'm doing is far more gratifying than big-buck architecture."

[Staff writer Shawna McCoy contributed to this story.]


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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