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Straw-bale construction ready for Indian country.

By Jerry Reynolds -- Today staff

WASHINGTON - The construction of houses from straw bales is poised for widespread deployment in Indian country, especially among Plains and Northeastern tribes.

But ''poised'' remains the operative word here. Even brief mention of the obstacles to straw-bale construction must include the following items, as described by the Development Center for Appropriate Technology of Tucson, Ariz.:

"''In spite of growing acceptance and success, gaining code approval, insurance, mortgages and financing continue to be a challenge.

"''Straw-bale construction is a public domain building technology available to anyone ... there is little to patent, control or sell. ... Thus there is no large, consolidated industrial or financial interest that could make enough money from it to invest in the needed research, testing, development and deployment necessary for ... widespread use. ...

"''We need public policies to deliver them.''

Policy impact was the point of a well-attended Capitol Hill presentation on straw-bale construction, timed on June 20 to coincide with the

summer solstice.

Advocates offered humble straw-bale houses as a solid line of local defense against global warming and excess energy costs. The inherent properties of baled straw super-insulate walls, reducing household energy costs in both hot and cold climates by an estimated two-thirds over conventional construction.

And straw, an abundant, annually renewable resource that is mostly wasted in the United States today, comes with exceptionally low ''embodied energy'' - that is, ''the amount of energy used in the production, transportation, construction and eventual demolition of a building material,'' according to GreenWeaver Inc. of Carbondale, Colo.

President Laura Bartels added that it is nontoxic, low-cost and carbon-sequestering (so that carbon molecules are not released into the atmosphere, as they are with countless other building materials, there to

contribute to the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming).

The costs of straw-bale construction vary, but they can be kept well within the realm of affordable housing.

''The best way to save money is through simple design, sweat equity in construction and low utility costs for life,'' Bartels said.

Straw-bale construction began in America in the late 1800s, following the invention of the baling machine. It got a good start in Nebraska and Alabama, where original structures still stand, and spread first to South Dakota, now to 49 states and 40 foreign countries.

Straw-bale construction has come to Indian country as well. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, no stranger to alternative energy and energy reduction concepts after years of patient commitment to wind power, offers vocational education courses in straw-bale construction through Sinte Gleska University. More recently, tribally chartered Sicangu Wicoti Awanyakapi Corp., the housing office at Rosebud, awarded $60,000 each to two organizations for the straw-bale construction of residential units. Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, said June 20 that more widespread straw-bale construction in Indian country would bring many benefits beyond housing for people who need it, including job creation and the community reinvestment of various revenue streams.

Straw-bale housing construction has also gotten a start in the Northeast of Indian country, in part through Mohawk alternative housing specialist Josh Sargent. Mohawks have attended a straw-bale construction workshop of GreenWeaver, Bartels said.

But marks of progress are counterbalanced by signs that straw-bale construction can only advance through public education. The June 20 presentation didn't fall short in that regard, as advocates devoted almost as much time to describing what straw-bale construction is not as otherwise. To sum up:

"When plastered over, straw-bale walls certainly aren't ugly, as slides and a public display on the Washington Mall June 20 demonstrated.

"Straw, the leftover stalks in harvested grain fields, is not hay, a livestock feed composed of alfalfa and grasses. Hay isn't generally used as a building material, for unlike straw, it is susceptible to spontaneous combustion.

"Straw-bale structures of poor quality are problematic, like houses poorly made of any material. ''All buildings must be designed and detailed well to avoid moisture issues. ... Straw does not have food value and bales offer less of a haven to insects and vermin than wood framing.''