Bluff’s First Straw Bale Home (1997)

Straw Bale, Bluff Style

“In communities throughout the country, Indian families are pioneering energy conservation and using renewable sources for energy–sun in the clear-skied southwest and wind in the blustery north. For Native people who have seen the earth and their own communities suffer from the exploitation of fossil fuels, it is deeply satisfying to work with ‘clean’ energy–especially when it also saves money and makes money!” –“Winds of Change,” Summer, 1997. Published by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

By Phil Hall

We had heard about Dan and Jean Treece’s straw bale home, of course. We only live a hundred feet away. And they had invited us over and we had seen the plans and the scale model they had made. The full impact of it didn’t hit us, though, until the semi-truck full of straw arrived and we went over to help unload it. We had a chance to feel those bales, and heft them, to smell the strawness of them, and grow curious about how one could make a house out of such cumbersome objects.

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Putting on the “scratch” coat – YJT Stucco, owned by Yo and JoAnne Todecheene of Chinle, Ariz.

I was excited about the project for several reasons: first, despite all of the conversation about straw bale over the last five years, this is the first one built in Bluff. Second, the lead carpenter is D.D. Bellson, who is a Bluff local and a Navajo. Bellson has had a Navajo crew the entire time, and Eno Kee, an other local Navajo, did all of the foundation work. In other words, it is a community project. The third reason I was excited about this project is its potential for energy efficiency, and if it turns out to be as efficient and as easy to build as some people are predicting it will be, it may have important applications for the Navajo, both as a source of owner-built homes, and as a source of employment.

Suzanne Allen-Guerra is a young woman with a Master’s degree in architecture from the University of Colorado, a clear head on her shoulders, enthusiasm, desire and ambition. She is quick to point out that she is not yet a licensed architect in Colorado, but works now as a design consultant. Her business is named Allen-Guerra Design-Build. She did her Master’s thesis on affordable housing, and it was through this process that she arrived at straw bale construction as a possibility for the future. This is her first straw bale design and she is excited about it.

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Designers Suzanne Allen-Guerra (left) and Ethan Guerra (right) discuss straw bale construction with San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy.

“What excites me most about straw bale construction,” Allen-Guerra said, “is its potential. Right here on the Navajo Reservation there is an enormous need for basic, decent shelter. The simplicity of construction as well as its ability to assume traditional styles could revolutionize housing on the reservation.”

Allen-Guerra and home owner Jean Treece, an Episcopal deacon, met through a mutual friend. Dan Treece worked with Allen-Guerra on the initial design phases of the house, and Jean has taken over coordinating the construction phase.

Ever since I first encountered the concept of straw bale I have been curious about the obvious. What about termites, for example, and other insects who would like to make your home their home. According to The Straw Bale House, by Bill Steen and David Bainbridge, “Straw bales provide fewer havens and spaces for pests than conventional wood framing. A good coat of plaster is required to prevent access for even small bugs.”

“The whole key,” Allen-Guerra says. “is keeping your stucco up. If it cracks you want to repair it. Animals and bugs, you know.”

“There are few termites that like straw,” The Straw Bale House continues, “compared to many that like wood.”

Allen-Guerra likes the idea of having hands-on experience, which she says many architects do not have. “I try to come out to this job site as often as I can,” she said.

bales going in
Straw bales going in for the first story of the Treeces’ home.

When asked about her particular interest in straw bale, Allen-Guerra said, “I’m basically interested in any material that’s affordable. Straw bale has some other good aspects to it, including its aesthetic beauty, its durability, its energy efficiency, and what makes it affordable is that people can build it themselves.”

“I think this house is going to be incredibly efficient,” she added.

“You’ll be able to heat this house with a candle,” Joe Pachak said in the beginning, when a crew of locals were unloading the 22-inch wide bales.

Affordable housing has been an issue in such rapidly-growing western Colorado communities as Telluride and Aspen for years. As land and construction prices have skyrocketed, many local people who provide much of the needed labor in the service and construction industries find themselves with no choice but to move “down valley.” As a result, many of the people who work in Telluride, and who can not afford to live there, are forced in commute. Communities such as Norwood find themselves as the overflow centers for people who can no longer afford to live in Telluride.

There are many who see straw bale construction as a means to affordable housing because of its ease of construction, especially on the Utah portion of the Navajo Reservation, where there is a critical shortage of skilled carpenters. There is a shortage of housing on the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo population is booming, and much of the housing built in the past 20 years is not constructed to withstand the rigors of the desert. Much of it is falling apart.

denny and crew
Construction foreman D.D. Bellson, owners Dan and Jean Treece, and designer Suzanne Allen-Guerra (left to right).

One interesting aspect of the Treece project is its local component. The straw bales themselves were purchased from Navajo Agricultural Products, Inc. (NAPI), which is a successful Navajo agricultural project; all of the carpenters are Navajo, and the crew which is doing all of the stucco work is a nine-person Navajo crew from Chinle, Arizona. Jean Treece is the overall project supervisor, but it is the local Navajo carpenter, D.D. Bellson, who is running the job.

“Denny [Bellson) is very inventive,” Jean Treece says. “He has invented all sorts of techniques and tools for working with the straw in difficult situations.”

Bellson, who has never built a straw bale house before, seems to be a natural at it, and he is already dreaming of straw bale applications on the reservation. “I would like to build a straw bale hogan,” he said. “Maybe we could build a chapter house out of straw bale. Eight sides with a big porch all around it, so people could sit outside.”

Mark Maryboy, San Juan County Commissioner and Council Delegate to the Navajo Nation from Aneth Chapter, has been over to see the Treece project several times. He discussed its construction in conversations with Bellson and Allen-Guerra and was very interested in the project’s possibilities.

“I think straw bale is the easiest of all the options for affordable housing,” Allen-Guerra said. “You don’t have to build forms like you have to do with rammed earth, and you don’t have to make bricks. Anyone who can lift a straw bale can do it. Except for the roof any two people can build one of these houses.”

Another of the positive aspects of straw bale is the reduction of lumber required. Post and beam construction uses less lumber than a conventional frame home.

D.D. Bellson has been a carpenter in Bluff for years. He did a lot of work for Gene Foushee, and received a Heritage Foundation Award from the State of Utah, along with Mark Begay, for the work they did on the historic pioneer home refurbished by Bill Davis and Deborah Westfall. One time, while working for Foushee, they took a trailer that had been burned, cut it in two with a chainsaw, and remodeled it. Working with Foushee gave Bellson a variety of experience. It is this wealth of experience which Bellson brings to the Treece project.

In mid-August the crew from Chinle showed up to put the stucco on. For many weeks the straw bale was covered with tarps to keep the rain out of the straw, while the wind and the rain whirled around the exposed walls. Now the stucco, the glue, which would hold it all together, had arrived. And with it a crew of nine very energetic Navajo builders.

There are three coats to the stucco process. The first, or “scratch” coat, a second coat, and the finish coat. They put up three stories of scaffolding, and the mud flew. They mixed the mud in a huge mixer, and then brought it by wheelbarrow to the men on the scaffolding who invariably were waiting for it. It is shoveled from the wheelbarrow to the first level of scaffolding, and then up again. They don’t stop for anything when the mud is fresh. Even as the sun was setting they were running with wheelbarrows full of mud, talking, laughing, joking, and slinging mud. They got the first coat on in a day.

They had to mud both the inside and the outside of the Treece house, an arduous task which was done in a week. The final coat has the color in it. It doesn’t have to be painted. And it is already sealed.

As soon as the mud work is done the finish work begins. The final cost on this project should be below market prices. It will comfortable–warm in winter and cool in summer. And it may just pave the way for a new era in Navajo housing, as well as new economic opportunities for Navajo workers.

–This article was originally published in the September 1997 issue of the Canyon Echo

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