Volunteers from the Red Feather Development Group
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Volunteers from the Red Feather Development Group

June 1, 2010
Volunteers from the Red Feather Development Group, a nonprofit organization that uses the straw-bale method to build housing for American Indian Nations, help build a community study hall on the Crow Nation Reservation, Montana. [One of 3 related images. See Next Image.]

More about this Image A team of four middle school girls from the Crow Nation Reservation--Lucretia Birdinground, Kimberly Deputee, Omney Sees The Ground and Brenett Stewart--won a $25,000 Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation Community Grant in June 2001 for their plan to solve the lack of quality housing on their reservation. The grant was part of the Bayer/National Science Foundation Award (now called the Christopher Columbus Awards) that challenges teams of middle school students to use science and technology to identify and develop a solution to a community problem. Jack Joyce, their science teacher at Pretty Eagle Catholic School coached the team. The students came up with the idea of straw-bale building after observing that several houses of this type that had been built on the reservation in the early 1900's were still standing. Getting building material would be no problem because there was an abundance of straw, a by-product of wheat farming, on the reservation.

The shortage of housing in the Crow Nation has been a problem for many years. Two or three families must live under one roof and some members of the Crow Nation have been waiting more than 10 years for a house. However, even with the housing shortage, the girls' idea of a straw-bale structure was not well received by the community at first. Most tribal members thought that straw-bale construction was ineffective and unsafe and worried that it would rot or catch fire easily.

In order to demonstrate that straw-bale construction was economical and safe, the team built a model of a straw house, stacking straw bales and covering them with stucco concrete. They also conducted experiments with blowtorches, hoses and thermometers to prove the structure was fireproof, waterproof and energy efficient.

In the end, their final contest entry was a design for a straw-bale building to be used as a community study hall. In addition to the Columbus award, the students also received a matching grant from Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network" and grants and in-kind contributions from universities and companies across the United States. Using these funds, the help of over many volunteers, and the guidance of the Red Feather Development Group, the community study hall was completed in the end of July 2002. In addition to teaching the students about energy conservation and helping the community, the project has inspired a renewed interest in straw-bale building as a solution to the chronic housing shortages on the reservation.

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