[Photo 1: Construction of The Gathering Place]
Construction of The Gathering Place

PLUMMER, IDAHO - It almost certainly was one of the very first bedtime stories you ever heard. These three little pigs build a house of straw. A big, bad and, frankly, pretty bent-out-of-shape wolf shows up, hungry and wanting inside. "No, no, no!" squeal the three little piggies. So, the big, bad wolf promptly huffs, then puffs, then blows their dream house down.

Times change, though, and building technologies improve. These days, you'll see, that big, bad wolf would be no match for a house made of straw. Just ask the members of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe who live on a sparsely-settled, 305,000 acre reservation bordered by Lake Coeur d'Alene to the north, the rolling prairie known as The Palouse to the west and south and the Bitterroot Mountains to the east.

The Tribe has just celebrated the grand opening of The Gathering Place, an three-building,18-unit affordable, sustainable housing complex built on a two-acre site once used as Tribal headquarters about five miles west of the community of Plummer. The $4 million project was funded by the Tribe and HUD under the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Coeur d'Alene - or Schitsu'umsh - people have lived on the land for thousands of years placed there, they believe, by "the Creator" for the "purposes of stewardship of the lake and surrounding area," observed students from the Bioregional Planning and Community Design Program at the University of Idaho who helped the Tribe conceptualize the project. The biggest challenge for the Tribe "when working to achieve healthy and prosperous communities," they reported, "is finding ways to reconcile their current needs with more traditional and sacred practices." In using, developing and caring for their homelands, the Coeur d'Alene have always preferred the "light touch."

[Photo 2: The Gathering Place housing complex]
The Gathering Place housing complex

You see that at The Gathering Place. The Tribe's plans called for construction materials and techniques that would be durable, easy-to-maintain, energy efficient, natural, local and renewable. They found it in straw. 6,000 bales of it to be precise.

Bad news for the big, bad wolf. Pick up a handful of straw. Light as a feather, right? But bale the straw and give it a lift and you could very well throw out your back. That's because a straw bale has mass and lots of it. And when you build walls of straw bales stacked on top of each other and covered with stucco, no amount of huffing and puffing is going to bring it down.

Even better, straw is five times more resistant to heat transfer than brick veneer. With an up to R-50 rating, those who live in these houses of straw will stay warm on the coldest winter's day and cool on the hottest day of the summer. Outside it might be 95, inside it'll feel like 68 to 72. "In all of our research straw bales are unsurpassed in terms of energy efficiency," Garvin Tenold, owner of Pura Vida Homes in Spokane, that helped build The Gathering Place told Down to Earth News. "The number 1 benefit of a straw bale wall system is how this thermal mass maintains a constant interior temperature."

The "light touch" appears to have been the right touch at The Gathering Place and the Tribal housing authority plans, says The Spokane Journal of Business, to develop more "straw-some" housing at The Gathering Place. If these first 18 units live up to their advance billing, it's sure to find there's plenty of demand.


Content Archived: July 23, 2015