From Hemp to Hulls – alternative constructions

In the last few days we have seen some really exciting experimental housing and met with inspiring people with new and different visions for housing on both the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Reservations.  We have now seen examples of homes built out of rammed earth, straw bales, hemp, and rice hulls (in the shape of a dome).  The impetus behind the construction was different in each case.

rammed earth home, Eagle Butte

The first experimental project we saw was a rammed earth house built by Habitat for Humanity in 1994, when Ex-president Jimmy Carter brought volunteers to Eagle Butte to build much needed housing. Of the 30 homes built, it is the only non-traditional design, and not much is known about it.  We asked the builder currently running Habitat for Humanity on the reservation, and while he did know that the house was “different,” he did not know it was made out of rammed earth.  We introduced ourselves to the owner, and learned that it was constructed from rammed earth. The house was notably cooler than the typical reservation housing we’ve been in.  Due to thermal mass created by the thickness of the walls, the hot sun has a harder time penetrating the structure.  The resident agreed that the house also felt sturdier than most he had been in.  He felt the overall construction technique was good but still had a few complaints.  The windows and doors were not sealed well, the layout was cramped, and because of the permanent and structural nature of the rammed earth walls, he couldn’t modify the unit.  The house has four bedrooms, one bathroom, and a long kitchen/dining/living room area.  He and his wife live there with their five children.  He did not participate in the initial construction or design, but moved in when it was partially finished. He believes the earth had to be shipped in from elsewhere. He and his wife did much of the finishing work on the interior, and he said that he enjoyed the freedom and control of doing work around the house himself.

dome home, Sharp's Corner (Pine Ridge)

We saw a dome home made from bags filled with rice hulls and earth mixture on the Pine Ridge Reservation, south of Sharp’s Corner.  The dome home is being built on the American Horse family’s property with the help of an organization called Nature’s Compassion.  The home was partially constructed last summer, and the family is expecting volunteers to come back in the next few weeks to finish the project.  The dome has an internal structure made out of burlap bags packed with soil, and an exterior insulating shell of bags packed with rice hulls.  Windows and doors are framed out with 2×4’s within the domes.  The house is designed as two dome shaped rooms bridged together and an adjoining wooden tipi.  Even unfinished, the structure was very cool inside. The main room has a hook up for a wood-burning stove (which was recently stolen by vandals), a hook up for hot and cold water and a lofted space for sleeping.  The bathroom is spacious and may get divided up due to its size.  We’re not sure how many people this dome home can accommodate, but look forward to seeing its progress in the coming weeks.

hemp community center, Manderson (Pine Ridge)

The man behind this community center, built and insulated with hemp, is Alex White Plume, an energetic activist with a vibrant spirit.  Alex and his family run an organization called Bring Back the Way (Owe Aku), whose mission is:

“to preserve and revitalize the Lakota Way of Life in working with the Tiwahe (family), Tiospaye (Relatives Living Together: Extended Family), Oglala Band, Lakota Nation, and Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires). We promote and work to protect our Treaty Rights and Human Rights, here on the ground in our hometown and in other arenas where our rights can be protected. Owe Aku focuses on the young generations in order to contribute to the Lakota Nation, and the World, Lakota and other Indigenous People who are firmly grounded in their ancient identity and a healthy lifestyle that includes leadership skills.”

In order to revitalize and maintain the Lakota way of life, he is committed to a self-sufficient lifestyle, independent from the US Government.  One of the ways he has tried to create a healthy cultural economy on the reservation is by growing hemp on his family’s sovereign land.  He wanted to grow something could be built with, would thrive in the harsh climate, and could withstand the wrath of grasshoppers.  Hemp was a seemingly perfect solution, with its high insulating properties in both refined and unrefined states.  He was growing an acre’s worth of hemp that he intended to refine, sell and build with when he was visited by the DEA, who ordered him to destroy the crop and shut down operations.  The details of how this is possible are confusing, as the tribe had passed a law legalizing hemp on Pine Ridge.  While the legal battle is still playing out, Alex continues to live on his family land and remains committed to building with hemp, legally imported from around the world.  He sources refined hemp insulation from Germany, hempcrete and hemp hulls from England, and hempboard from Canada.  With these materials, he has been building a community center, which is beautifully constructed. Currently, it is one large space with a window, but will be divided up into bathrooms, a cooking area and a gathering space. The project is still under construction, waiting for more funding.

Alex White Plume demonstrating the fire-resistant quality of hemp insulation

The construction process is fairly simple, combining traditional and new building techniques.  The building is framed with hand-cut 2×12’s from his property, then surrounded with formwork made from 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood. This formwork is packed with dried hemp hulls mixed with water, tightly filling the thick frame. When this is dry, the formwork is removed and chicken wire is applied to the packed wall, then layered with medium grade hempcrete.  Finally, finish layers of fine grade hempcrete create a smooth wall with high insulating and structural qualities (it withstood a test blast from a large shotgun), and no chemical additives. Hempboard flooring completes the building.

We were struck by Mr. White Plume’s desire to live in an independently sustainable way – both environmentally and financially.  He did not want to receive any aid from the US government, and he did not want bring products mass produced with chemicals, from building materials to meat, into his home.  This desire for independence would seem to be a positive thing to the US Government, which we have learned spends a lot of money to sustain the lives of many on the reservations we have looked at. Yet, they prevent Alex from growing a crop that would further help him and others become more self-sufficient.  Very few crops grow out here, but hemp appears to thrive. It contains no drug qualities, and would be a major source of income, material, and empowerment for people on these reservations if it were legalized.

straw bale wall, Slim Butte (Pine Ridge)

Finally, the last alternative construction technique we saw was on Bryan Dean’s ranch near Slim Butte, Pine Ridge.  We did not get to meet Bryan, as he was at a community meeting, but we did meet with the generous people who were currently staying on his ranch studying permaculture and constructing a straw bale structure.  The ranch was like a sustainable living lab.  They have made a bio-diesel conversion device, wind turbines, a solar powered outdoor shower, and are currently working on a rainwater collection system and a large straw bale structure.  The group emphasizes simple techniques that are inexpensive, and straw bale construction seems to be a great use of local materials and communal labor. The foundation for the house is a pit filled with gravel, then a base is built up using 2” x 20” sealed wood planks and filled with more gravel. Bales of straw that are roughly 18” x 20” x 36” are stacked on top of this base, then held in place by thin wood slats on either side.  Once the walls are complete and smoothed out, the exterior will be plastered with clay made from the Slim Butte area mixed with lime.  We saw an early example of plastering, but were told that it will be smoother upon completion.  The ranch has an open house every Saturday for anyone in the area who wants to check it out.  We highly recommend it!

Seeing these four housing types gave us a tremendous amount of hope for the future of housing on the reservation.  The four types of structures were relatively inexpensive and easy to construct, focused on utilizing local materials, and were built with the local climate in mind.  With motivation, a small initial investment and few people to help out,  living situations can be created that are far sturdier, better insulated and better tailored to local needs than a trailer or HUD-style home.

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