Volunteers Use Straw To Build Home For 86-Year-Old Woman

CHICHILTAH, N.M. - For Mary Lowe, an 86-year-old Navajo grandmother, the freezing winters in a shack with no insulation and no utilities will soon be over.

Thanks to a Santa Fe architect, two nonprofit organizations, Gallup-area merchants and a small army of volunteers, Lowe will spend next winter warm and safe in a new straw-bale house.

The house is rising at the end of a dirt road near the corner of a cornfield Lowe's family has cultivated for generations. After years of futile requests for housing to the Navajo Nation, she says it seems like a miracle.

"The Navajo people won't treat me like this, but the people from somewhere else really poured their hearts our to me and helped me get a home," Lowe said, speaking through an interpreter, her granddaughter Geraldine Ashler.

"She's so thankful every day, she brings her sheep out this way," Ashler said, laughing.

The straw-bale house is a new concept in housing for low-income families. Alfred von Bachmayr, the architect, said Lowe's home is the result of a stroke of luck and a lot of hard work.

Von Bachmayr specializes in energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, low-cost housing. He was giving a workshop on straw-bale housing in Santa Fe when he was approached by a Navajo who explained the desperate need for low-cost housing on the reservation.

"One day we just drove over here and we had some extra time, and we started knocking on doors in the subdivision, and Geraldine and her husband happened to be home, thank God," Von Bachmayr said. "I was just interested in what they've been providing for housing out here, and what kind of housing the HUD developments were."

As the conversation went on, Lowe's situation came up.

Ashler said her grandmother's old home was built more than 20 years ago by relatives. It's so cold in the winter that Lowe has been hospitalized several times in recent years for pneumonia.

The idea of building a straw-bale home for Lowe appealed to von Bachmayr. He made a presentation on Lowe's behalf to Lewis Begay, Chichiltah's delegate to the Navajo Nation Council. Begay told them Lowe was next in line for a new house.

"We told him that if he'd generate some funding, we'd get some volunteers together and build the house," von Bachmayr said. "This went on for six or eight months. We'd call over, and nobody would have any idea."

Begay said Lowe had been on a priority list for a long time. "It's like everybody else; she's been trying to get a house for the last 20 to 30 years," Begay said.

Frustrated with the inaction, von Bachmayr turned to friends Bill DeKramer and Burke Denman, who runs a Santa Fe construction company. They raised the money to build the house themselves.

"At some point in the line there, we just decided, if we're going to find a way to do this thing, we have to do it ourselves," von Bachmayr said. They finally raised the needed $7,000 this spring through a combination of grants and in-kind donations.

The builders are being aided by the non-profit organizations Sustainable Communities Inc. and Living Structures Cooperative Inc. Other private contributions have also chipped in, said Julia Takahashi of Sustainable Communities.

They hope the home will serve as a prototype for low-cost housing on the Navajo Nation.

The one-room house is a modest 500 square feet. Three of the walls are composed entirely of straw bales donated by Navajo Agricultural Products Industry. The south wall is largely adobe bricks, made from ground-straw and local soil, to trap heat during the day and re-radiate it at night.

The house will have solar panels for electricity and a water cistern. Out back, a straw-bale outhouse is being built.