Peggy White House
Garryowen, MT, 1999
This first AIHI project, a one-and-a-half story, three-bedroom straw bale home, represented the first of its kind in the region and offered the first large-scale opportunity for students to test theories about straw bale construction generated by our earlier demonstration efforts in eastern Washington. Our client, Peggy White, was the ideal first straw bale client. A warm, vocal, gregarious woman, Peggy is a popular member of the community who had waited years on the Crow Housing Authority housing rolls. She was thrilled about finally getting her new house, and she was the perfect personality for a housing type that was entirely new and somewhat experimental at this stage in this region—she was open to adventure.
The site for Peggy’s house is only several hundred yards from Interstate 90 on land that had been in her family for years. The remnants of her grandparents log house stands about a quarter-mile down the highway. The land is flat, relatively unforested, and lies very low in the water table. The microclimate was a dramatic site for working and camping; the ground was often damp and biting winds tore across the plain throughout the build. Offsetting these challenges was the fact that the site borders a huge highway, which made the straw bale process highly visible to passersby. While not the perfect home site for everyone, it was ideal for Peggy’s outgoing personality.
This first AIHI project took place during the spring academic term. Students created design and construction drawings for the house prior to the two-week blitz build and an advance local prep team built the foundation and platform so that when the students arrived the walls could go up immediately. This has become standard practice in our two-week summer builds because foundations are labor intensive, time consuming, and do not teach students as much as the rest of the process.
It was quickly determined that only smaller two-string bales were available in the region, which limited the capacity of a load bearing system. To allow for a wider building, a double bale (2-wythe) wall system was devised with the help of Chris Stafford, a straw bale architect and builder in Port Townsend, Washington. The three-foot-wide wall permitted longer spanning trusses to be used, and a more functional floor plan to be devised. Non-bearing walls were kept to single bale width. The double bale walls have an R-value of about 75 and the single bale walls of about 45, both substantial improvements over the insulation capacity of the manufactured houses traditionally built on the reservations, first by HUD and now by local housing authorities.
The beauty of the straw bale process is its accessibility. Just about anybody can stack bales of hay, therefore building the walls is a quick and inclusive process. Within two days on site we had the walls up and all of the windows and niches framed. The stucco went on quickly thanks to its intuitive nature; everyone agreed it was no different than frosting a cake. The voluminous walls become soft and sculptural when the stucco is applied, and the deeply set windows and niches highlight their unique qualities. At Peggy’s request many niches were created on the interior of her walls for seating and storage purposes. By the end of the second day she was able to walk amongst the straw bale walls and explore her new home.
McMillan truss had donated space saver trusses for use in the creation of the loft-story and roof of the house. These were very steep, heavy trusses that save construction time when you have a large crew and heavy machinery. In our case, they proved to be a major challenge. Their shear size and weight made installation difficult for an unskilled crew. Once they were in place and sheathed, their steep 10-12 pitch caught winds off the prairie and acted as a sail; both truss and sheathing were subject to immense uplift forces and we constantly struggled to keep them from flying away and taking the bales with them.
Eventually the roof battle was won however, and students were able to add low site walls and several porches onto the house. The porches use timber from Peggy’s grandparents log house down the road for structure, and old teepee poles for a lattice roof. These elements help make the transition between home and prairie, and visually anchor the building to the often harsh landscape. At the conclusion of the project, which required much more time to complete than expected, students assessed the build and subsequently produced design guidelines for future straw bale projects based on their evaluations. A simplified single-story floor plan was designed to avoid having to use such massive truss material and workshop methods were developed to make the construction process more efficient and more inclusive of the community. Students made a firmer commitment to using local materials so that tribe members would feel more comfortable working with familiar products.
Peggy’s enthusiasm over her new home has been our greatest reward. It not only made our students feel like their difficult chore had met success, but she also became a wonderful local straw bale promoter. This house truly changed her life. She has been instrumental in getting several other straw bale buildings built in the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations, and she has become a more vocal advocate for other issues on the reservation such as cultural heritage and children’s education opportunities. Trailers now form a courtyard behind her house where she runs an after-school study and reading center and a Crow Cultural Heritage Center. Her home has truly become one of the centers of this Crow community.