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Project builds a community as well

RED SHIRT, S.D. - Some said they would huff and puff, others volunteered to bring over their cattle to chew on the new house, all in fun, because the Fast Wolf family's new house is made of straw.

Straw bales literally make up a major portion of the construction of the new home to be owned by Larry and Josephine Fast Wolf. They raised 24 children in their present, rented home, a mere 100 yards from the new straw-bale structure.

When it's complete, the only way to tell the home is made of straw will be to open a special window inside to get a glimpse of the straw.

The house is more than a home under construction, it has become a family and community effort. And that's the intent of the entire project.

Redfeather Development Group of Washington state, in partnership with the University of Washington, designed straw homes with the intent of involving communities in the construction process. The Fast Wolf home is part of that process with more than 70 people at work.

"It's a dream come true. It's really a nice home," Josephine Fast Wolf said.

Josephine went to the Oglala Cap office and was encouraged by Ernie Little to sign a paper to apply for the home. That was a few months ago. She said one day she called home and her niece answered the phone and told her that she had won the home.

"I jumped sky high. I couldn't believe it. I want to thank Rob Young and the Foster Grandparent program."

The $40,000 home will be donated to the Fast Wolf family.

Robert Young, founder of Redfeather, is the force behind the straw house project. He got involved building homes for the elderly through the Foster Grandparents program.

"It's really something to see it going up," Josephine said. Construction started with the foundation, in place before volunteers arrived, a week before the walls were put in. The first real construction started on July 9 and by the end of the day July 11, the straw walls were up and roof struts were in place.

"Things are coming out smoothly. We have grandchildren, nieces and our son-in-law working," Fast Wolf said. The family will move in by July 23.

Young started Redfeather after a visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1994. Visiting his adopted grandparent, he found Catherine Redfeather "living in a trailer that wasn't meant to be used as a home." Young founded the company and the first home was built for his adopted grandmother.

"That changed my life," he said.

Young said people want to help others and the way to help is to get involved and work as a community. When he got involved with the Foster Grandparents p

rogram he knew it would be a long-term project. He sold his clothing store business in Washington state, which was doing very well, and started the non-profit Redfeather Corp. Young and his wife are the only employees. Its purpose is to build affordable quality housing for American Indian people.

"I would be more than happy to be out of business," he said referring to the fact he would like to see no housing problems on reservations.

For the Fast Wolfs, living in a home with this unusual construction may be like living in a fish bowl. Community members have already come around to get a look at it, and the developers and Young said curiosity would help others plan and build their homes with the family and community labor method.

The straw house will allow the resident family to heat it for one-eighth or one-tenth the cost of a conventional-built home on the reservation. The walls are listed as having up to an R-80 insulation factor. Conventional wall insulation would be an estimated R-19 factor for a 6-inch wall. "(The Fast Wolfs) will be advocates for straw bales," Young said.

Sergio Palleroni, professor of architecture at the University of Washington, said the straw-bale construction is much like adobe, it isolates temperatures. "It's good for this climate." Cold and heat will not penetrate easily through the walls.

"Every year American Indian elders suffer from the cold and even die due to sub-standard housing. Some families, including those with small children, have no housing at all and we have the ability to change that.

"This is really about sustainability. It's about environmental sustainability, it's about volunteers creating and sustaining hope and it's about sustaining a people and a culture facing loss due to sub-standard living conditions," Young said.

Proponents claim the future of the straw house structure is bright. And to insure that additional homes will be built, there is a fund-raising effort underway. While the Fast Wolf home goes up, cameras document every step, family and volunteers are interviewed and the result will be two documentaries produced by Phil Lucas, a Choctaw and independent film producer. Lucas produced "Images of Indians," and Turner Broadcastings Native American Series and "The Broken Chain."

"I got involved when I heard the story of Rob (Young) and the grandmother. There is no hidden agenda here. I can't believe his passion. No one should live in substandard houses," Lucas said.

One of the documentaries will be used for fund-raising. Young said he hopes to raise $3 million to $5 million. Lucas said the film won't be blatant on fund-raising but will tell the story of the Redfeather group and the need for housing on reservations.

When this home is finished the team will return to Washington and work on improved designs for the home, Young said.

And the local education process will continue. The people working on the Fast Wolf home as volunteers went through a training process. They can share their knowledge of straw-bale home construction and how to mix the perfect stucco mud and other essentials.

Straw construction is nothing new, said David Riley, associate professor of Construction Management at the University of Washington. "Straw construction has been used for centuries. It doesn't contain insects and doesn't rot." He said straw-bale construction began in Nebraska, where one house still stands after more than 100 years.

"The advantage is the area has all the straw it needs. Most of it is left to rot in the fields."

"Straw is regional and available here and the home is easy to build. We have worked for several years on how to make it as easy as possible to build," Palleroni said.

All the materials for the Fast Wolf home, except for the straw, were from the region. The straw came from Montana.

Palleroni and Riley said everything in the home could be purchased in this area.

The only thing not constructed on-site was the core wall. That wall, in the center of the home, contains the mechanical works of the structure. It was assembled in Washington, but the design of the wall makes construction of the home more simple.

"The construction is very straight forward. It is made as easy as possible," Riley and Palleroni said.

The project is as much about providing adequate housing as it is about bring communities together. As more people help each other, more homes will be built. Through the Redfeather group volunteers, from all across the country, are organized to help in the construction. Young said he had to turn away nearly 200 volunteers for the Fast Wolf home project.

The volunteers sleep in tents, share a communal meal and spend evenings together around a fire getting to know one another and participating in cross-cultural learning. It becomes an extended family and community project.

"We create a housing program that is community based, like an Amish barn raising.

"This is something the tribal government can get involved in. An organization or the tribe can sell bales to families for a home. A reservation based organization can be formed to hire people to build the straw-bale homes," Young said.