Straw Bale Houses for Indian Country: Interview with Bob Gough

Jun 1, 2010

Bob Gough

Bob Gough, Secretary for the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Keri Pickett,2009

Inez Steigerwald, FCNL's former Program Assistant on Native American Affairs, spoke with Bob Gough on May 2, 2010. Bob Gough is the Secretary for the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

Efficiency First

Before you get to generating a single megawatt of electricity, become energy efficient first. We just spent this whole week on a building project on Rosebud, a pilot project of a straw bale house. You build the walls out of packed straw bales and they're about 18 inches across. You've now got the perfect combination of mass of the earthen plaster on the walls and insulation from the straw sandwiched in the middle, and you get an R40 [insulation] value, which is double anything 6 inch fiberglass insulation will give you. It's sequestering carbon in the form of straw, which is a waste material…. Instead of burning it, put it into housing walls, make them far more efficient; then you need less energy to heat it in the winter and cool it in the summer.

There are many straw bale buildings constructed in the early years of the last century still occupied and holding up very well.

There's a house in Alliance, Nebraska that was built in 1903 and abandoned in 1954. A photograph was taken of it in 1994, 40 years later, and that house looks like 3 good weekends and you could be back living in it again. You cannot show me a HUD [Housing and Urban Development] house…that could be abandoned for 40 or 50 years and it'd still be standing at all. These straw bale houses, made with natural materials, not only last a long time, but to build them requires a lot of local labor. We call that a solution to the unemployment problem.

How Can Congress Help?

There's now a whole wave of training grants; just through the Department of Labor we can get a whole lot of money to train people, and we'd love to train them to build straw bale houses.

[With] one grant from a given department you can get training funds but can't get stipends or buy a whole lot of straw bales to build houses. "No, this is a training grant, this isn't a housing grant."…If you're going to train somebody to paint you've got to buy them paint. You've got to be able to get enough straw bales to train in construction techniques…it means you've got to get the Department of Agriculture working with the Department of Labor and with the Department of Energy, and with the Department of the Interior. You need them all…playing together.

Why Indian Country?

Tribes and tribal governments are very different from cities and counties, because so much more of the housing on an Indian reservation is…low-income, public assistance housing, because that's the population, these are America's poorest communities. Cities don't have programmatic control over all the residential buildings in their jurisdiction the way tribes do-or the way tribes can. Tribes have a greater opportunity to really make a difference; tribes can programmatically address their housing needs and address their unemployment needs and at the same time address their energy needs.… If we could meet the present need for new homes and replace a good deal of the existing Indian housing in the next 20 or 30 years with energy efficient homes, these reservations would hum as models, as islands of sustainability, as shining stars of passive and efficient survivability.

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