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InterviewsLoreNo. 74StrawStraw Bale Construction

In The Weeds with Emily Niehaus

By The Last StrawOctober 1, 2023October 11th, 2023No Comments

We sat down with Emily Niehaus, the founder of Community Rebuilds, to talk about the beginnings of the organization. Frequently referred to as “CR”, the nonprofit works in and around Moab, Utah to build low-cost housing using natural building techniques. Emily speaks with us about environmentalism, human behavior, cult leaders, and the complexities of age.

The Last Straw: Hi Emily! How have you been? Also, is it okay if we record this interview?
Emily Niehaus: Okay, let me just straighten my overalls, now that I know that we’re being recorded. 
[Earlier this evening] my son asked, ‘can we please go out to dinner, Mommy?’ and I was like, ‘okay you’ve been good and deserve a reward’. We’re at dinner and this young woman is our server, she’s maybe 22. And she says, ‘I’m looking for housing, and I’m trying to get on the list for this place called Community Rebuilds, and I was like, ‘no way! I’m the founder’. 
If I could have talked to myself 15 years ago I would have said, ‘you’re going to be at Pasta Jay’s just horkin’ down food because you have a seven o’clock Zoom meeting, but it’s going to be cool because someone’s going to be there and they want to apply for CR!’
In 2010 I came in with these natural building elders; Matts Myhrman and Judy [Knox], all the people that started The Last Straw actually, the grandparents of straw bale construction. On December 12th, Matts was featured in an article for the New York Times that said straw bale building could be the new way we build and a potential solution for affordable housing. The reason I know the date of the publication of that article is because that was the [same] day I was born. 
TLS: So you’ve been fated, there’s a prophecy.
EN: Right? 
TLS: How did you get into natural building and affordable housing? 
EN: I got my master’s degree in applied sociology, studying recreation behavior, and I met Chad Niehaus and he was like, ‘marry me and move to Moab’ [Utah]. And I was like, ‘Moab sounds cool, I’ll figure something out’. I got here and I was like, ‘whoa, I need to make money, and there’s no jobs’. And back then it was a dark place to live. We did not yet have our sushi restaurant. 
I just needed money and health insurance. I got a job as a case worker and it was the saddest, best job I’ve ever had because it really showed me the raw side of the rural struggle, specifically with people that were court ordered to have stable housing and were trying to pull their shit together. The judge would say ‘if you don’t find a place to live, your kids are gone’. 
So I’m in the housing market looking for housing for these families, and there are no homes in Moab. We need to build homes. That’s when I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m a very good caseworker, cause I cry all the time and it’s so hard. Maybe being a caseworker’s not for me, but maybe doing housing is. I’m going to try to figure out affordable housing’. That was 2002. It wasn’t until 2010 that we welcomed our first students to Community Rebuilds and built our first home. Between 2002 and 2010, I knew I would figure it out. 
So I was a loan officer, I figured out lending. And then I worked for Western Spirit Cycling as their bookkeeper, so I could learn business and bookkeeping. And then I was finally able to launch CR. So it took a while for me to build my skill set to begin to solve for affordable housing. 
That’s the affordable housing piece, but then, in grad school it was a lot of feminist theory and gender studies and trying to understand why it’s a man’s world. I was always fascinated by why we do what we do, gender roles, equality, and also environmentalism. Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors Among Whitewater Recreationists was my master’s thesis. I did a deep dive into why we behave. 
I did a typology where I said, if you have high attitudes and high behaviors, you’re an environmentalist. If you have high attitudes, but low behavior, maybe you’re not an asshole or lazy; maybe you’re constrained. Maybe you want to recycle, but you don’t have a recycling bin. You want to be pro-environmental in your behavior, but you can’t because you’re constrained. So I kind of went through this whole thing, like well, maybe women want to be on the job site, but they can’t because they can’t get hired. And maybe builders want to do better, but they can’t because there are structural constraints in place that keep them from building better. So that was the environmental piece. 
I knew I needed to build affordable housing in Moab and I knew that it was going to be based on my fundamental principles of equality and environmentalism. That’s how it all cobbled together. 
TLS: Was there already a community or natural building “cult” in Moab that you kind of joined?
EN: Well, yeah, that’s why the door opened. I was cast as the lead of this play called Fuddy Meers. And I was like the new, hot ingénue of community theater. I thought, ‘I’m here in Moab, I don’t have any friends, I’m going to do theater’. There was an audition. I landed the lead role and Doni Kiffmeyer played my husband. And so I’m meeting all these crazy people. Community theater is a pile of crazy, and Doni is one of them. 
I was like, “what do you do?” And [when Doni said he was a builder] “how do you build?” And then I was like “natural building?” ‘I’m looking for affordable housing, and natural buildings are super cheap’. So I thought ‘this is my thing’, but how do you frame? And I’m asking him all these questions. So finally I asked him “if I start this thing, would you be my first instructor?”
And he said yes. So I hired him, but he was the master, he was the educated one. I might be running payroll, but he was the boss. Dave Clark was the contractor that had built a few straw bale homes, Mitch Stock was our qualifier, and then we had Doni as the natural building instructor. And then we hired Jeff Johnson to be our builder. And that was it. I pretty much took everybody that was doing any natural building at all in Moab, and they helped for the first couple of builds. Alex Burbidge was building and plastering straw bale homes before Community Rebuilds started and became one of our lead builders. So Community Rebuilds drained every natural building resource that ever was in Moab. And Doni continues to be an instructor here and there. 
Before and after photos of the first home that Community Rebuilds completed back in 2010
TLS: What have you been up to since departing Community Rebuilds? 
Ten years as director was my mark and I needed an exit strategy, so running for mayor [of Moab] was perfect: looking at affordable housing through a policy lens as opposed to a do-er lens. But I swear the most impact that you can have is by being a do-er; policymakers are easily persuaded, but the real hard work is the doing of the thing. I’ve always said that it takes six months to build a house and one day to burn it down. Whether it’s the culture, or the organization, or the building itself, it takes a lot of time and there’s fragility. You can just burn it down if you’re not careful. If you forget to water your plants they die. I think that’s why it’s important that I continue to be involved in the natural building world, but I don’t know what it looks like today. 
So going back to 15 years ago, I would have said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be successful in launching this program, but this pipe dream that you have about changing the paradigm and having gender equality and having inclusive job sites, you know, the work is long and hard and, it’s going to take a couple generations before we’re there’. We are just stuck in these gender roles with construction and it’s just going to take a really long time. But I’m grateful that Community Rebuilds and other programs are making people feel comfortable in a way that’s inclusive, supportive, and educational. And working with vendors like plumbers and electricians to normalize having women on the job site.
Anyway, did I answer the question? I got rambly. I may have had a glass of wine for dinner. 
TLS: How have you seen the culture of the natural building world shift since you first entered?
EN: The culture has changed since that first day that I welcomed student interns. Another fun thing about being 44, becoming a feminist in the ‘90s and then intersecting with, I don’t know if it’s really even feminism anymore, the gender equality movement, and gender pronouns, all the things that are new and shifting. It’s different and exciting and scary for older people to be okay with that change and scary for younger people to ask for that change. But then there’s that rub and transition, and we get to a better place. 
As macroculture shifts so does microculture, and especially the natural building subculture. But it is a cult too, you drink the Kool-Aid. And I really have joked about Kool-Aid, and as the founder of Community Rebuilds I’d joke that, am I like David Koresh or, you know, all those horrible cult leaders? And I’m not because I don’t need to sleep with a lot of people and I don’t want them to kill themselves.
TLS: You spoke about age as being something that is really restrictive. When you talk about all of these social and cultural changes on a macro level, since the community consists of a lot of elders, how have you seen them receive all of these big changes? 
EN: Mixed bag. They say like, ‘bring it on. We need the young people.’ That’s what they say. Every conference it’s ‘we need the young people.’ And then the young people show up and they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! We need the young people to do what we say and follow our patterns of what we’ve been doing.’ But whenever you invite somebody new into your world, you have to be an open hand. What we hope for and expect from those elders of natural building is their knowledge and that longitudinal data of how plaster performs and the best way to do things. But what we also need from them is an invitation to improve upon the craft and the process. I think that’s complicated, no matter what it is, natural building or otherwise. 
TLS: Do you see any difference in the aspirations of older and younger generations? In our experience, some elders seem okay with natural buildings existing as an outlier, forever. But a lot of other people have higher aspirations for natural buildings.
EN: Everybody’s constrained by their age. Age is a variable, no matter what. You can say that you’re progressive, liberal, that you’re in with the times, but we all have the baggage of our own age that we have to recognize. If natural buildings were to become the norm, they’re not as special anymore. There’s ego involved in all things. 
You’re going to talk to students of CR today versus 5-10 years ago, and they talk about the good old days. The good old days were one house at a time. Today Community Rebuilds is building Living Building Challenge (Ed: a difficult building certification) and 16 homes at the same time. I don’t ever want to see natural building or the Community Rebuilds method of building ever plateau. I want it to be the dandelion. And then at some point, maybe the flower metaphor will shift because nobody likes a weed, but I mean, I guess that’s the way building departments and other builders still kind of see natural building. 
Natural building has been like Everest and we’re barely at the base camp. But, you know, we’re at the base camp and it’s a party.


Emily Niehaus is the founder of Community Rebuilds. She grew up in Ohio with a passion for recreation, learning, and finding creative outlets to keep her busy. She holds a Master’s Degree in Applied Sociology from Clemson University, where she studied human behavior. She moved to Moab in 2002 with an open heart to be of service in her life and call the high desert her home. After 10+ years of building affordable housing with Community Rebuilds, Emily made a professional pivot and served as the Mayor of Moab to work on housing policy in her community. As for today, Emily is on a new adventure as the founder and Head of School for Heron School (www.heronschool.com), a private high school for twice exceptional (2e) students in Moab.

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