UW Today

This is an archived article.

June 11, 2003

Architecture students joining Montana tribe for ‘barn raising’

Forty architecture students soon will head to Montana to help the Northern Cheyenne tribe build a house out of straw.

The June 29-July 11 “build” will make use of innovative straw-bale techniques developed at the University of Washington and Pennsylvania State University, which are sending students to the reservation for the third consecutive year.

This time, says UW architecture associate professor Sergio Palleroni, a major goal is to train local residents in the technique, to remedy a severe housing shortage while boosting community pride.

“One of the big pluses of straw,” Palleroni said, “is that professional tradesmen are not needed as much, so there is more community participation, like an old-fashioned barn raising.”

Chief Dull Knife College is a partner in the two-story, 900-square-foot project, which is funded with $50,000 from the Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority.

UW and Penn State students designed and helped build a literacy center at the same reservation last year, and a single-family home the year before.

“It’s real cozy in the winter, and cool in the summer,” said Martha Bear Quiver, who lives there with her husband and four children. “It’s turned out to be everything I wanted.”

The walls of the buildings are made of wheat straw, a low-cost waste product in the Plains that is compressed and stacked up like bricks, lined with stucco and topped with a roof. Its unbeatable insulating properties cut heating bills by 60 percent.

While tribal members gain homes and skills, the university students gain hands-on training and a one-of-a-kind cultural experience. The two weeks can include buffalo hunts and moonlight horseback rides.

Among the scheduled highlights of this year’s build:

– June 29: UW and Penn State students arrive in Lame Deer, Mont.

– June 30: Students meet with community at the middle school.

– July 2: Students, residents and volunteers raise the walls!

– July 3-5: Annual tribal Pow-Wow.

– July 11: Finishing up construction.

The 6-year-old partnership between UW and Penn State — formally known as the American Indian Housing Initiative — also performs research on the safety and durability of straw construction, and has helped build houses and schools on the Crow and Lakota reservations. The universities also share information with other tribes.

“Another word for this is ‘self-help housing,’ ” Palleroni said. “The next few years, our focus will really be helping tribes do it more on their own.”

The Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority commissioned this year’s house for temporary, emergency family shelter, Palleroni said. Only about one-third of the tribe’s approximately 6,300 members have adequate places to live, and someone in the area dies of exposure almost every year.

Among the nation’s two million reservation residents, an estimated 300,000 suffer in overcrowded dwellings that lack insulation, plumbing or electricity.

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To cover the build, or for more information, contact:

– Before June 24: Palleroni at (206) 543-2018 or sergiop@u.washington.edu, or teaching assistant Bray Hayden at (206) 650-7154 or uwbasic@u.washington.edu.

– After June 24: Dull Knife College president’s office at (406) 477-6215 ext. 127 will relay messages to Palleroni. Messages also can be faxed to (406) 477-6219. (Most cell phones do not work on the reservation). In Seattle, Carolyn Wennblom of the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning, at (206) 685-0175 or wennblom@u.washington.edu, can answer questions and relay messages.

– Background information and photos on the Web: http://online.caup.washington.edu/programs/uwbasic (click on “Projects”).