The last few months, I have been in Moab, Utah happily doing a 5- month natural building internship with Community Rebuilds, a non-profit organization that offers a one-of-a-kind internship. Their program provides a trade – learning in exchange for labour, as well as accessibility to affordable housing for the common workforce. One of the initial motivations for Emily Niehaus, the founder and director of Community Rebuilds, was to improve the housing conditions of Moab through an affordable program, and Community Rebuilds most definitely has made an impact. The end of this year will see the 16th and 17th houses being completed by the program in 6 years.
Community Rebuilds’ mission is “to build energy-efficient housing, provide education on sustainability and improve the housing conditions of the workforce through an affordable program”. Each 5- month semester two affordable and energy efficient homes are built –with 14 interns (typically 16), two apprentices, two instructors. The house designs are an intricate balance between using natural materials/methods, staying affordable, adhering to the strict building code, being time efficient, as well as being productive with essentially an ‘unskilled’ team of volunteers (to begin with). This program is unique in making a natural building internship affordable to students as well as affordability for the homeowners. Homeowners are successful applicants that fit specific criteria and fall below ‘the low income’ level according to USDA (the lender) as well as being a working resident of Moab for at least two years. Each homeowner is also required to be a part the building process, as they must work 15 hours/week on site.
NATURAL BUILDING & THE CODE
Modern day natural builders have made leaps and bounds with fighting for regulations and options within the building code for natural methods. Straw bale and natural plaster has gotten approval, with some conditions. This seems exceptional, but it should be the norm. Building with straw, clay and sand is nothing new; it’s an ancient practice that continues in many nations today, as I have witnessed, and until the early 20th century did here in North America as well. These buildings often last for hundreds of years. The colonization of this land and its people changed the conventional way of building (and living) as the rules, permits, and control were created; which in essence, slowly made building your own home with your own hands almost obsolete as it became very expensive, let alone very difficult, as people typically no longer learned the skills, as we have reached the epitome of that today. The building code definitely has its value but there must be flexibility, adaptability and openness for different methods, and progression with the changing world. Accessibility to affordable shelter, not to mention a healthy one at that– one not ridden and sprayed with chemicals (as code requires) – should be the norm for all, not the exception. I digress.
All the houses of Community Rebuilds keep the same architecture plan (46ft x 25ft exterior) to avoid engineer costs, yet the interior can have slightly different layouts, and the homeowner is free to decide most details, with room to add creative accents as well. The homes are always – passive with a wood frame, straw bale exterior walls, solar energy, earthen plaster walls, and earthen floors, for a brief summary. These houses minimize the heating and cooling loads as much as possible through passive measures such as south-facing orientation, a thermal mass (cob) wall in the interior, solar tubes, and exceptional insulation with 14″ thick straw bale walls. Straw is a big ‘waste’ material to farmers as they burn it typically, but with a little bit of a shift, straw can be seen as a very usable and efficient by-product of the agriculture industry – a top-notch insulation with little carbon footprint – a very worthy resource.
The process started with a demolition of a mobile home on one site. Then a somewhat atypical process took place, from excavation to foundation to posts to trusses. Then things got more unique as the straw bales went in, then windows, interior walls, ceiling, earthen floor, plastering outside and in, vents, kitchen cabinets, doors, bathroom floors, ceiling,etc …and that’s about where we are in a nutshell. What makes this process extra special is the teaching with a hands-on experience. I think it’s an extraordinary task that the lead builder/instructor, alongside the apprentice, teach the interns all along the way starting from zero, while maintaining a deadline, and budget.
THE COMMUNITY/ INTERNS
In this natural building internship, out of all the interns, only a few of us had even some building experience, the rest of the group had very basic if nothing at all. We started what seemed slowly at the time, learning how to use each tool, and machine. Then before you know it, the weeks went by, the months, the weather went from high 41C to a lovely 19C these days….and we’re here now with only 6 weeks remaining – two houses standing and getting closer everyday to completion.
The 14 of us, all live together and work together, which would, and did, seem daunting to me (and apparently many of the others) before arriving but I am pleasantly surprised that it has worked out very well. Everyone is great! And I am very happy to find that I was not the only introvert among the gang, which provokes a good balance of social and quiet time amongst everyone; it’s been grand.
There is also endless nature outside our doorstep as the house sits on an open ridge with a gorgeous view, a quaint creek literally a few steps away, and mountains and slick rock just up the hill. It’s surreal actually… sometimes I can’t decide ‘where to take it all in’.
The natural building internship with Community Rebuilds offers the opportunity to be part of a complete house build with no prior skill, and as I imagined, the whole experience is empowering in many ways – experiencing the potential with building, and with earth, and even more importantly within ourselves – it’s a game changer. Moab has been an outstanding, and humbling place to live whilst Community Rebuilds is a sensational place to experience building education hands-on as well as community life like no other.
Learning how to do something for yourself, whether it’s tying your shoe when you were four, learning how to change a tire when you’re twenty or building a house when you’re thirty-seven, is the best gift you can give yourself if you ask me. Empower yourself – fill your soul up with new experiences, new skills, new confidence, new openness. Love yourself and this life! Aho.
Here’s a glimpse of our progress on both sites – Riversands & San Juan 😉
“People say walking on water is a miracle,
but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh