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CommunityLoreNo. 74Spring 2023StrawStraw Bale ConstructionTechnical

A Look Inside The Community Rebuilds Model

By Kenny Fallon Jr.October 30, 2023February 25th, 2024No Comments

Design/Build Education and Affordable Low-Carbon House Construction in the Southwestern US.

We think there is a lot to learn from CR’s experience building and teaching, and hope this piece might provide a model that can be replicated in part or in full in other places. This piece is based on a combination of the author’s experience working at CR from 2019-2020 and talking to current staff and interns in the last few months.

The United States Southwest has been a hotbed of natural building for decades, but Moab, Utah might be one of the only cities in the world where straw bale construction is approaching mainstream. Most longtime locals are familiar with the idea, the local county government were early adopters of a straw bale building code, and new straw homes are built each year even as the natural building revival in the U.S. slowed in the mid-2000’s. The main force stoking the fire in Utah for the last decade has been a group called Community Rebuilds (CR).
CR is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation and general contractor (licensed in Utah and Colorado) based in Moab, Utah. Their official mission is “to build energy efficient housing, provide education on sustainability, and improve the housing conditions of the workforce through an affordable program”. It should be no surprise that some things have changed in the last few years, so two different iterations of the program are described here. CR also offers consultation and an in-depth intensive course about the program for those especially curious about the details of their work. In the approximately 14 years they’ve been around the group has worked on this mission in a variety of ways, but some aspects of the process have remained consistent:
  • CR staff first pre-qualifies (as part of the loan packaging process) a group of people with low and very low income that meet the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD)’s requirements  to receive subsidized loans with fixed interest rates that will pay for the construction of their home. CR is an official USDA RD loan packager (the name for groups that are registered to pre-qualify people for these loans and expedite the process). 
  • CR staff then supervise a group of volunteers to build alongside the future homeowners.
  • The homes are designed to take advantage of passive solar heat gain and to include as many sustainable energy-efficient methods as possible. These methods are taught to the volunteers who help build the homes.
  • While CR has been funded with various donations and grants, the bulk of the funding and all of the home loans come from the USDA RD.
  • The USDA RD mutual self-help loans require “sweat-equity” from the group of future homeowners, which means they need to spend a certain amount of time building each other’s houses. The volunteers’ hours can count for part of this requirement. This mutual self-help program is similar to how Habitat for Humanity works.
While this basic model has remained consistent, CR has adapted over time to a changing context with varying amounts of volunteers, number of homes under construction, and degree of refinement to home designs. When CR was founded by Emily Niehaus in 2010, they built one house at a time, usually on lots formerly occupied by deteriorating trailer homes. Now in 2023, under the leadership of Executive Director Rikki Epperson, CR aims to build four houses at a time on a large community land trust just south of Moab. [Ed: For some more background on CR’s origins, see our article with Emily Niehaus on page XX of this issue]. CR has weathered variations in material costs, waves of COVID-19, and tightening USDA RD regulations, all the while teaching young people low-carbon building and increasing local affordable housing. 
At the onset of COVID-19 precautions in March 2020, CR ended the Spring 2020 semester early and started back in Fall 2020 with a similar structure, albeit with fewer interns. Now there are work exchange volunteers, AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers, and Builder BEES (Building Energy Efficient Shelter). BEES are similar to the pre-2020 interns but volunteer for shorter periods of time.
AmeriCorps is a government program that began during the 1960’s “War on Poverty” initiatives as a kind of domestic version of the PeaceCorps. CR has used many kinds of AmeriCorps volunteers, from the capacity-building/indirect service VISTAs, to the direct service State and National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC) volunteers. The State AmeriCorps now serve as the Build Apprentices, who help the Lead Builders supervise the construction sites. There are Design/Build Apprentices who also work on the construction drawings, under the direction of the Planning and Development Manager. The NCCC volunteers serve terms shorter than the interns previously did, from five months to about six weeks, but play a similar role. The AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers are intended to play capacity-building roles that help expand the host organizations’ efforts for years to come. These volunteers have largely served roles in the office including Fundraising Coordinator, Planning /Development/Content Coordinator, and Education Developer. The Planning/Development/Content Coordinator searches for land available for sale, identifies development costs, documents possibilities allowed by zoning, and works on side projects to strengthen the organization. 
The Qualifier Contractor’s General Contractor license allows CR to operate legally as a contractor. The Qualifier also consults on building practice, and sometimes works as a lead builder. The Lead Builders/Construction Site Supervisors coordinate multiple sites at a time and are supported in day-to-day construction and instruction planning by the other build staff members, like the Build Apprentices. The Program Director’s role is a project manager for all house projects. They are also the main contact for homeowners after the Executive Director and Program Coordinator process and qualify the homeowners for the 502 loan. The Program Coordinator also serves as the main contact for all interns.
Before March 2020, CR usually ran two five-month build intern semesters per year: the Spring semester (February through mid-June), and the Fall semester (July through mid-December). When more people applied than were internship spots (recent semester cohorts consisted of 16 people), CR reserved half of the positions to female, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people to try to counter the male-dominated construction industry in the United States. The CR experience was intended to inspire a cultural change in the broader building world, moving the paradigm of stressful, macho, conventional construction site culture towards an inclusive and healthy site with natural materials. Communal living in a bunkhouse was relatively cheap to provide but also made the experience more immersive. Conversations on site could continue after hours, and loosely organized spoon carving, gardening, and book clubs were not uncommon. In exchange for working a 40 hour week on site with occasional workshops, the interns were provided with lodging at a bunkhouse; bulk food staples like lentils, rice, beans, oats, flour and seasonal CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) produce boxes; a monthly $100 stipend; and various hands-on workshops on topics like permaculture, PV solar panel array sizing and installation, and tadelakt application. The internship was basically free; the only cost was a deposit that would be refunded at the end of the semester if the intern didn’t leave early. 
The biggest change in the last few years has been the increase of active builds happening simultaneously. The smaller scale of the builds from the earlier days was seen as a trial by the USDA RD, as most other grantees of the Section 523 program build several houses at once. The early pace was also set by the slowness of getting access to developable land: most trailer-replacement projects were on individual and unique lots that took some time to prepare. They were also frequently spread across the city, making it harder for lead builders to split up and supervise across separate sites. As CR matured the USDA RD trial came to a close and coincidentally a large amount of continuous developable land became available. 
The land is at the Arroyo Crossing project of the Moab Area Community Land Trust, which broke ground in 2021 with CR and the Southeast Utah Housing Authority as the main builders. A land trust is a kind of property where people can lease lots and buy the houses on the lots. The homeowners get equity from owning a house, but the land trust maintains ownership of the lot and therefore controls how much a house can be sold for later on. This system theoretically preserves the affordability of the house for as long as the land trust exists. Since Arroyo Crossing is a large piece of property, CR could build on several lots at once and share resources like tool trailers and lead builders across nearby sites.
The design of the current homes has also shifted to accommodate the pace. Subcontractors are called in to help with framing and concrete slab floors, while the unique natural building aspects of the house are focused into specific moments. The houses have always been a hybrid of straw bale, earth plaster, dimensional lumber framing, and concrete footers combined into an energy-efficient bundle. Now the techniques are aimed at replicability on a medium scale of building: what used to be straw bale infill walls covered in plaster are now straw bale-cellulose combination walls with Intello building wrap and recycled wood siding. The walls are still low-carbon and vapor-open, but go up much faster.
If you talk to anyone who’s been involved with Community Rebuilds in its 14 year history, you’ll probably hear some version of “yeah, well in the good ‘ole days we used to do it this way…”. While the mission has remained constant the whole time: the office moved, the intern classes varied, and each lead builder had some specific way they preferred to teach how to build a wall. What’s presented above are just two iterations of a dynamic group seen from one point of view. I can’t hope to say the final word on CR or offer a definitive answer to the question of how it works, I just hope these brief explanations can give you some insight to how low-carbon affordable building might be done. I’d really like it if you’d tell me what you think about all this: what do you think about CR? Do you want to start something similar in your area? Did I miss something big? We plan on featuring more stuff about Community Rebuilds and natural building education in future issues, so email editors@thelaststraw.org anytime with your rants, memories, corrections, or views.

Kenny Fallon Jr. is an editor at The Last Straw and project manager at Epicenter. While he now lives among the sagebrush in Green River, Utah, he was born and raised in New Orleans and throughout the U.S. South. He is interested in place-based building and living in rural and urban hinterlands. (kennyfallonjr.com)

THE LAST STRAW
The Alternative Journal of Design and Construction for Dirtbags and Dreamers
Since 1992