Wednesday, August 02, 2006

At first glance it might seem like good news to the Big Bad Wolf.

[Photo:  Telamon's 'straw house']
Rendering of one of Telamon's "straw houses" under construction in Gloucester County, Virginia

With one-third of the financing from local growers and the balance from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development grants, four houses are being built on the edge of a nursery for migrant workers and their families by the Telamon Corporation in Leedstown, a small, agricultural community in Leedstown, Virginia.

The four houses are built of straw. But, Telamon says, no amount of huffing and puffing will bring these houses down.

Construction began in June, with the laying of a foundation and the construction of wood frames and roofs. Once that's done, Telamon volunteers will stack straw bales about three feet by 18 inches to form walls that will then be coated by a weather-resistant plaster of sand and clay.

"It sounds neat," Ingleside Plantation Nursery manager John Hopkins recently told The Richmond Times Dispatch, "and, hopefully, this will the wave of the future because it's so sustainable."

How sustainable? "The bales have an insulation factor of 38 which is twice what you get if you insulated 2-by-6-inch framed walls and even more than the standard 2-by-4 frame," Telamon architect Greg Miller, a 2003 graduate of Ohio State explained. Moreover, EPA recommends an R18 standard for exterior walls in Virginia's temperate climate. Thanks to straw's R value and passive solar heating, on a sunny day those who live in the Telamon houses, Miller said, will not have to turn on the heater "until the temperature outside drops to the 40's."

Even better, building with straw saves money. The houses will cost $85 a square foot, $10 less per square foot, Miller says, than conventional construction. And it would have been even less expensive had they not been "custom-designed to include passive solar heating and cooling and meet the specific needs of the farmworkers."

Best of all, says Sam Johnson, Westmoreland County extension agent and secretary of the Rappahannock migrant and Seasonal Workers Council, the straw houses address a pressing need for more affordable housing. We've "tried for years to improve housing in the area for workers," he told The Times Dispatch. "This is one way to get decent housing for them close to where they are working."

The Telamon project also is consistent with HUD's Energy Action Plan that, when fully implemented, should save the Department and its partners an estimated $2 billion in lower energy costs over the next decade. Among its 21 identified objectives is to "assist non-profits" like the Telamon Corporation "to develop, build, and manage energy-efficient housing."

"We've hit the trifecta with this project," says Jim Reina, Telamon's deputy director. "Energy efficient. Cost effective. And, most important, expanding the supply of affordable housing for an under-housed segment of our market."

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