The Millennium Development Goals – Environmental Sustainability and Energy Savings with Straw Bale Homes

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Completed straw bale house.

Completed straw bale house.

Straw bale construction originated in Nebraska in the late 1800s but has seen resurgence in popularity over the last few years due in large part to its low cost and significant energy savings. Laura Bartels, president of Greenweaver Inc., a consulting and education firm specializing in straw bale has been on the forefront of this movement since 1994, when she was researching options for building a home that was both environmentally friendly and energy efficient:

“I recognized straw bale as something that could create super-efficient housing by closing the loop of a resource that was being largely wasted,” Bartels explains.

Straw, not to be confused with hay, is the stalk that remains after cereal grains such as wheat, rice, barley or oats have been harvested. It is largely seen as a waste product in the United States with around 200 million tons disposed of each year. According to Greenweaver Inc. there is enough straw available each year in the United States to build at least 10 million 2,000 square foot homes.

Straw bales are the basic building blocks of a wall system that, once plastered, provides excellent insulation. The result is a building that is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, allowing for reduced utility costs and CO2 emissions of up to 75% when compared to conventional construction.

“The embodied energy and operating energy of buildings are a huge leverage point for reduction of CO2 emissions. Straw bale offers reduction in both,” Bartels explains. “There is a direct connection with climate change.”

“I think people are really recognizing that we need to be aware of resource efficiency,‰Û Bartels says.

As the worldwide dependence on limited resources such as coal and oil continues to contribute to climate change and stretch our wallets, more and more people are looking for sustainable alternatives. And while small changes do make a difference, it will take more than switching to Energy Star light bulbs to transform an infrastructure built around the idea of cheap fuel for cost efficiency. Achieving environmental sustainability, one of the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, requires the cooperation of the entire world – a seemingly daunting task. However, the consequences for not taking action may soon be impossible to ignore.

The United Nation’s main target for achieving environmental sustainability calls for countries to integrate principles for sustainable development into their policies and programs that reverse the loss of resources. Though the United Nation’s deadline for achieving this is 2015, implementing ways to lower our impact before the damage becomes irreversible may have a much closer deadline.

One area that is experiencing growth with a potentially significant impact is ‘green’ construction, which in the United States is exemplified by LEED—(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), an internationally recognized certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). To be LEED-certified, a building or community must be designed and built using strategies that improve performance in areas the USGBC has ranked as most important: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.

According to the USGBC’s recently released McKinsey report, investment in energy efficient building and other non-transportation sectors can reap $130 billion in annual savings ($1.2 trillion total), 1.1 gigatons in annual greenhouse gas reductions, and the creation of as many as 900,000 new on-going jobs.

Indeed, the significant environmental and monetary gains that can result from adhering to these standards makes LEED-certified construction or “green construction” economically viable in a way that is hard to ignore: The USGBC confirmed that numbers of both LEED-registered and LEED-certified projects doubled in 2008, while square footage of LEED-certified construction rose 92%.

But despite its recent popularity, green construction is nothing new. In the case of straw bale, it is a return to a natural building material that was overtaken by more modern building practices.

In addition to being an annually renewable resource, straw bale also has a very low embodied energy, meaning the amount of energy used to manufacture, and transport, a given product or material, is low–especially when compared to man-made materials such as fiberglass or foam insulation.

Leonard (Lenny) Lone Hill is shown carving a notch for a post with a chainsaw. He is a building trades instructor at Oglala Lakota College at the Pine Ridge Reservation and is one of the participants completing the 12 credit certificate in straw bale building taught by Laura Bartels.

Leonard (Lenny) Lone Hill is shown carving a notch for a post with a chainsaw. He is a building trades instructor at Oglala Lakota College at the Pine Ridge Reservation and is one of the participants completing the 12 credit certificate in straw bale building taught by Laura Bartels.

As David Eisenberg, Executive Director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) explains: “The overall carbon impact of the whole wall system is small relative to most conventional wall systems.”

“Generally, the straw is quite local or regional, and it is an annually renewable byproduct of growing cereal grains, meaning that the overall carbon performance is much better than most industrial materials. The potential to sequester carbon, combined with the small carbon footprint and enhanced energy performance means that in some instances it could be carbon-neutral or possibly even better.”

The USGBC also asserts that green construction results in job creation, an idea that has been embraced by Native American tribes in the Northern Great Plains and led by the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (COUP).

The Intertribal COUP is made up of representatives from fifteen tribes from South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa. COUP was formed in 1994 to provide a tribal forum for utility issues such as telecommunications, renewable energy and energy efficient housing, from regulatory and economic perspectives with an initial focus on developing the vast wind power potential of the Great Plains. It was seen as a way of optimizing the tribal benefits of federal hydropower allocations, creating jobs and building tribal capacity for more sustainable and resilient communities, while reducing dependency on non-sustainable resources, like coal.

Robert Gough, secretary of the Intertribal COUP, says: “In many respects, the conditions on American Indian reservations mirror those of the majority of the so-called “Third World” in terms of population profiles, underdevelopment and unemployment, with the potential to leap frog most of the centralized industrial development model of the 20th century.”

Now the Intertribal COUP has teamed with Greenweaver, Inc, DCAT, and One World Design to create the Sustainable Affordable and Efficient (SAFE) Homes Train-the-Trainers program. This program has brought expert advisors on straw bale construction and other sustainable technologies together to develop and deliver a new curriculum for tribal college vocational technology programs for building trade faculty and students. It is meant to serve as the basis for broader community planning involving sustainability and regeneration.

This program also helps to address two crucial issues these tribes have been dealing with: rising energy costs and a lack of employment opportunities. According to the Intertribal COUP, new homes being built on reservations are “ill suited to the 150 degree annual temperature swings of the Northern Great Plains”, while current unemployment rates run between 60% and 80%. Bartels explains: “Straw bale was a previously unused resource. This allows the tribes to use their own local resources and also create jobs within the community.”

However, these issues are not confined to reservation life, especially since the economic downturn: “These are the same issues that are happening all over the U.S., but it’s just much more extreme on the reservations,” says Bartels.

Eisenberg points to the real economic gains that environmental sustainability can provide: “Research by the U.S. Department of Energy reveals that in most communities, much more than half, and in many cases nearly all, of the money spent on energy immediately leaves the local economy.”

“Communities may finally begin to recognize how much local wealth is being transferred away with the purchase of energy and other goods and services from elsewhere.”

The Intertribal COUP is remarkably forward-thinking in its embrace of sustainability, and provides a good blueprint for the large-scale actions that could be taken by our society at large, if environmental sustainability is to become a real priority.

Straw bale house under construction.

Straw bale house under construction.

As Gough notes: “Today, with the Intertribal COUP project up on the Sinte Gleska University campus through a training the trainers grant from the Department of the Interior’s Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, the South Dakota Community Foundation and other funding sources, both the oldest and newest straw bale buildings in South Dakota are on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation.”

First costs for straw bale construction are often similar to conventional modern construction but have great opportunities in reduction. In one USDA funded program for farm worker housing, sweat equity of future occupants not only reduced construction costs but also taught valuable job skills while reducing operating costs for the life of the homes. In comparing costs for straw bale homes to conventional modern housing in the northern plains or in any area, one has to take into consideration the full costs not just of construction, but also of long term energy, health, and ecological costs as well as costs to the local economy. Straw bale is superior in all of these areas. Such considerations have guided the thinking and planning of the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy in searching for a strategy for the development of sustainable, affordable and energy efficient reservation housing.

Straw bale housing has been fundedåÊthrough tribal housing authorities and supported through federal housing programs such as HUD and USDA.åÊåÊBob Gough states that, åÊ”The question of subsidies of tribal housing is best addressed with regard to the official tribal housing programs through which ‰ÛÏgrants‰Û or ‰ÛÏloans‰Û are directly made by the federal government for the benefit of the tribes through HUD.åÊ Most tribal members may not even be eligible for such federal/tribal programs.åÊ On some reservations in the Great Plains, up to 80% of the people who might need homes are not eligible for such housing programs under the existing guidelines.”

The growing popularity of straw bale construction seems indicative that a sea change may be on the horizon. Says Bartels: “It’s not just a fringe thing anymore. It’s really come a long way.”

Eisenberg is cautiously optimistic regarding a future in which our lifestyles are built around environmental sustainability: “We are still a long way away from that goal. But an awakening to these larger issues is taking place as a result of growing awareness of the emerging crises and increasing attention to green building and sustainable goals.”

The Millennium Development Goals themselves were designed to draw awareness to these and other pressing issues—but, more importantly, they were designed to get measurable results. As Gough puts it: “To paraphrase Sitting Bull, rather than leave our children with the problems we have created, let’s but put our minds, hearts and hands together and help them build a better, more sustainable future. What happens in Indian Country could be a model for most of the rest of the world.”

Though green construction is not a cure-all for our environmental woes, it is significant because rather than some lofty, pie-in-the-sky solution, it embodies tangible, achievable change across a broad scale. Eisenberg concurs: “One way of viewing this is that from a risk standpoint, and from a careful analysis of where we are, it’s clear that the most dangerous thing we can do is to continue to do what we’ve been doing.”

Emily Sullivan is a freelance writer, pursuing a master’s degree in English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.