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Green building: Saving energy from the ground up

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - All hands were muddy, caked in red dirt that had been blended with straw and water to create an earthen plaster.

A dozen volunteers spread the blend across bales of straw stacked about 10 high, to insulate a home being built for a Navajo family.

The 750-square-foot home being erected in the capital of the Navajo Nation is the first of what the Navajo-owned startup company Keya Earth hopes will soon become a trend across Indian country.

Finishing touches, including electrical wiring, were to be completed by the end of July. The family also plans to utilize solar and wind energy.

''We need homes. There's housing entities out there trying to do it, and there's constantly new, young families,'' said Gordon Isaac, 37, the president of Arizona-based Keya Earth, which helped coordinate the project. ''We're offering an alternative that is community-driven.''

A movement encouraging sustainable and renewable energy efforts has been spreading across Indian country, marking a return to tradition by harnessing natural forces like sunlight, wind and water.

Other groups in the West, including the Native American Renewable Energy Education Project at the University of California at Berkeley, have assisted tribes, including the Yurok in California and the Zuni in New Mexico, with solar and heating cost reduction projects.

A majority of Natives in the United States and Alaska live in poorly constructed homes that are overcrowded and have high energy bills, according to NAREEP. Many tribal households use cheap wood and few have access to inexpensive natural gas, the group says.

Native households ''face a substantial burden in paying for household energy bills,'' wrote NAREEP researcher John Elliott in a 1998 study.

NAREEP researchers have published a handbook on energy called ''Native Power.'' It covers topics including project financing, efficient home heating and the use of small renewable energy systems.

Keya Earth encourages such methods, and is beginning its effort by constructing energy-efficient homes.

The company name is based on a Hawaiian proverb that likens teaching people sustainable skills to planting seeds.

''When you sow a seed once, you will reap a single harvest,'' the proverb states. ''When you teach the people, you will reap a hundred harvests.''

The need for Native housing in the state is growing. Since the 2000 Census, Arizona has had the largest numerical gain in the number of Natives, adding more than 21,000.

More than half a million Natives live on reservation or trust land, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of that number, more than 175,000 live on Navajo nation trust land.

Keya Earth co-founder Derrick Terry, 32; his wife, Reynalda, 31; and their two daughters, Sidney, 7, and Jessica, 3, have been assisted in the building of their home by dozens of volunteers from across the West. Many camped out in tents on the bushy terrain.

The volunteers were rewarded with training and meals cooked by Terry's mother-in-law, Linda Ross, whose home is adjacent to the site.

''It's a statement in itself because we're saying that anything we build for the world we would also live in ourselves,'' said Dan Rosen, 21, a non-Native founding member of Keya Earth.

Keya Earth has been involved with three other sustainable homes in Arizona and New Mexico, Isaac said. It wants to also bid on housing contracts, and ''do them the right way, not out of sticks where they fall apart in 10 years, which is how it's been around here,'' Rosen said.

Keya Earth and partners including Grand Canyon Trust are helping to construct buildings using traditional techniques. The red sand used was dug from a mountainside five miles from the site.

''Instead of putting stucco, we're putting clay so it can breathe,'' said Rosen as he smeared on plaster. ''When it does get wet, it'll dry out.''

The use of straw and earth durably replace ''energy intensive'' concrete, fiberglass, gypsum and toxic materials found in most buildings, according to the partner company Gaia Design in Utah. Only the home's foundation is concrete.

''Green building is usually more of an upfront cost, but over time the energy saving balances it out,'' Rosen said. ''You could have a home that makes you sick, that has toxins in it; it's cheap and industrial and put together poorly. This home will last forever.''

The estimated cost to build the Terry home is $30,000, significantly cheaper than the $125 per square-foot to build a home in Flagstaff, Terry said. He offset much of the cost of construction with volunteers, recycled items like sinks and countertops, and donated trailers.

''We have no more savings,'' he said. ''But I didn't really mind putting that money into it because the return will be really nice for my family.''

Once completed, the building will serve both as a home and a sustainable building teaching site, he said. ''We want to give back to the people, to give them empowerment,'' Terry said. ''You just need a few dedicated people and tools and you can have a home.''

For the past 15 years, his family has been renting homes, most recently in Flagstaff, where Terry is an engineering technician for the school district. His wife, Reynalda, recently received an environmental science degree from Northern Arizona University.

More than half of Window Rock residents are renters, according to the U.S. Census, and the average income here is $36,885. The median value of a home is $59,000.

The Terry family received some funds from the group Sustainable Nations Development Project in California. Keya Earth said it wants to help more families fund and build such sustainable projects.

It plans to hold a workshop in November at NAU, where people from across the country can meet to discuss sustainable construction in Native communities.

''The whole reservation is wide open and prime for development, but I think you need to look at it from a smarter angle, with solar and wind energy,'' Isaac said. ''We just want to lower utility costs in Native communities. What better way than energy-efficient homes?''