Community Rebuilds shows off latest straw bale homes

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

Jessica Lawley couldn’t stop smiling.

The Grand County resident and Rim Cyclery employee greeted people as they came to her brand new Lance Street straw bale home as part of an open house sponsored by Community Rebuilds, an organization founded by Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus.

“It’s been so amazing,” said Lawley. “It’s been such a good experience. I’ve learned so much from interns and builders.”

While Lawley had to put in at least 20 hours a week to build her house, she ended up working more hours. “I liked being here,” she said.

Community Rebuilds is modeled after the federal Department of Agriculture’s Mutual Self-Help Program. It assists low and very-low income families in building passive and active solar straw bale homes that feature earthen plaster finishes and adobe floors. Everyone who attended Lawley’s open house had to remove his or her shoes, as her floor has not yet cured.

She said she will apply one more coat of linseed oil in anticipation of a final inspection Jan. 29.

Like life often is, Lawley said the most difficult work she did during construction was also the most rewarding. “I had a really rough day when I built forms for the concrete. I mean a really difficult day, but it was worth it.”

When asked to rate the construction experience on a scale of one to 10, she said, “It’s been like a 20.”

Community Rebuilds has built 36 straw bale homes since 2010, with the majority in Grand County, said Melissa Graciosa, a lead instructor. The open house on Dec. 14 was one of two held that day, marking the 26th and 27th homes built in the county. The remainder of them were built in Crested Butte, Colorado or on the Hopi Reservation.

It took a few minutes, but Graciosa, Project Director Rikki Epperson and Niehaus were able to name every homeowner they’ve helped over the years. Graciosa said she’s found her passion and intends to further her education in the building industry.

For Lawley, the experience of helping to build her own home is “something I will never forget. It’s been awesome.”

Niehaus, who is aggressively working to modify some Moab building zones so that increased densities can be allowed in some areas, says she has largely stepped away from the Community Rebuilds low-income housing program that requires participants to work on their homes during construction. The sweat equity gained through the minimum 20 hours a week goes a long way to instilling pride of ownership, organizers say.