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Lessons Learned - A Community Building Project

by Benjamin Miner and Derek Roff, Builders Without Borders

A diverse group of volunteers assembled at Sacred Mountain Camp, near Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico to build a straw-bale hogan (a traditional Navajo home) in the space of 5 days this July. Sound tough? It gets better. The volunteers, working under the guidance of Builders Without Borders, represented no less than four other organizations, the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (NIYLP), Americorps, Americans For Native Americans (ANA), and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). While our project goals were completed satisfactorily, many issues arose, ranging from the usual problems of material availability and time constraints, to the more ambiguous social challenges which may be inherent in any situation where people of widely-varied backgrounds work and live together. What we learned will help future partnerships run more smoothly.

Builders Without Borders (BWB) was formed by a group of natural builders seeking to apply their expertise to shelter issues in areas of need. Sustainability, education and community building are central to the concept. One of the challenges is to translate our expertise to meet diverse cultural and community needs, develop an effective partnership and produce a mutually-satisfying result. As our pilot project we agreed to help the NIYLP build facilities with and for the Indian and other youth served by the Sacred Mountain Camp.

We understood that the NIYLP had a materials budget and on-site materials adequate for the project. We would provide the design, expertise and leadership. Labor would come from the BWB team and from approximately 80 teens and adults. The building period would be two weeks, and we had about 90 days before the start of the project.

Realistic Expectations. Construction is complex, and time is the most grossly underestimated element of the building process. Due to conflicts of availability between the groups involved, the time frame shrank from 2 weeks, to 10 days, to 6 days, to 5 days. This made planning and coordination challenging, to say the least. Though education was a primary goal, the toll was unfortunately taken on our ability to effectively teach about straw-bale building, and still complete the hogan. For a relatively small building offset by a large group of volunteers, 10 working days would have been far more desirable than the 5 we ended up with. Even the simplest design will present problems; too tight a schedule will turn ordinary practical hurdles into time-consuming quagmires.

Resources and Materials. Many materials were available on site. The wooded camp land offered some options, and the detritus of previous construction, nearby power and water line installation, and road building could have provided many local materials. It turned out to be impossible to make use of all of these options. We underestimated the difficulties in inventorying the available materials at this remote site. Using local and recycled materials requires more time to adjust and adapt the design and to process and rework the materials. We finally chose to use more purchased materials, due to lack of time. This raised costs and decreased sustainability.

Getting good bales is always critical. For various reasons we had to build with marginal bales. And the bales we got were different dimensions than we ordered, which required on-site adjustment in the construction plans. This translated into time.

NIYLP had the materials funding, the local contacts and controlled the project, so it was natural for them to be in charge of purchasing the building materials. Or so we thought. It was naïve of us to think that a group with no building experience could effectively facilitate communication between BWB’s volunteer architects and the materials suppliers. This led to difficulties when the suppliers wanted to substitute alternative materials for unavailable items. At the eleventh hour, two days of phone calls between organizers and suppliers managed to bring it together. In the future, we will budget more of our time and attention to materials acquisition, and work more directly with suppliers.

Communications. Effective communication is the foundation of a good partnership and the result of trust and understanding. Communicating by long distance seemed okay at first, but we were surprised when we didn’t receive answers to essential questions. Or calls would go unanswered. In retrospect, this is probably more the norm than the exception. We were working with multiple groups, who all had multiple projects they were juggling. Within each group, naturally, there was also difference of opinion. Next time, we will expect more challenges and delays in the planning and decision making phases.

Here are a few more things we learned:

Be Prepared. Once all necessary materials have been acquired, organize the site to maximize efficiency. Prepare for weather. Have tarps cut to approximate size to cover walls for the duration of rain storms; It will pay off in time saved scrambling to beat the rain. At the hogan, a large awning-tent proved extremely valuable when afternoon thunderstorms arose suddenly, and tools or bales or people needed shelter. Other such bivouac covers would be useful for covering specific work stations where power tools or perishable materials stay on site.

Scheduling. The daily schedule is bound to slip sooner or later. When it does, flexibility and coordination are essential to maintaining the momentum of the project and keeping the whole crew focused. Probably the best way to stay on top of the situation is by organizing morning meetings with the whole building crew, and coordinating their efforts according to the day’s needs. No worker should be left out of the loop. This empowers everyone, increases confidence and allows for greater satisfaction all around.

Learning. An educational project needs enough time for learning, and that means true comprehension. The adage, “nothing has been taught until something has been learned,” holds true. The attempt to teach will meet success, according to the talents and interests of each student and teacher, but it takes time. Written materials and a check list of the building process will help.

Leadership. At Sacred Mountain Camp, we were blessed with more than one dynamic crew leader who was able to motivate volunteers and keep them smiling the whole way. Any large group project needs to have vivacious people involved for those long days of foundation grading or mud plastering or whatever onerous job tends not to bring out our cheeriest qualities. When such leaders come along, recruit them!

Design. When designing a building, determine priorities. A BWB priority is to utilize as many locally-available resources as possible. Our hogan was supported by 6 ponderosa pine trunks, claimed from a spot nearby where they had been cut to make way for power lines. They were the right dimension for our structural needs, and provided a visual connection to the site and surrounding lands.

Roofs. An ongoing problem in the world of natural building is efficient and durable roofing, which is labor and material intensive. The hogan roof was designed as a 2x6 framed hexagon, to which corrugated metal sheeting was attached directly. It was done quickly and completely (and not cheaply), but its assembly was complex and totally dependent upon skilled carpenters. Given the limited timeframe, this seemed the best solution, but very few lay builders can be reasonably expected to take on such a task.
The hexagonal roof was a peculiarity of the hogan, traditionally a 6- or 8-sided structure. Roofs are less complicated when the building shape is simplified. A shed roof is by far the easiest to demonstrate and learn, but unusual-shaped structures require unusual-shaped roofs.

Safety. Job sites are fraught with hazards; on a group project the need is greater for safe practices. Participants on our project had available earplugs, safety glasses, work gloves and a masks, both the good, tight-fitting double ply dust masks and the vapor filter masks, for extremely fine particulates. Remember straw bales aren’t without their hazards. Avoid the dust, and sensitive people should wear a mask. And, of course, loose straw is flammable.

People. The project brought teens from upper middle-class, East Coast, urban Anglo-American culture together with rural New Mexican Native American youth. The diversity of the young participants is one of the great strengths of the Sacred Mountain Camp, and also one of the challenges. In that they often seemed more interested in getting mud on each other than on the wall, it may be said that their minds were not always on natural building.

But to watch them learn about each other, what was important – music, clothes, language – was to witness one of the more important elements of the Sacred Mountain Camp. And it had very little to do with strawbale. Another lesson.

Community projects have special needs and complex dynamics. Time must be taken for education, sharing and fun. The Sacred Mountain Camp project was a good beginning and a great learning experience for Builders Without Borders. One measure of its success is the initiative of some of the Americorps participants, who are now establishing the Native Women’s Strawbale Building Association. They plan to work on and off reservation lands, to illustrate for others that people can learn to build for themselves. This enthusiasm is our greatest encouragement. They show us that even in an imperfect environment, together with our partners we can nurture our convictions, values and human connections.

Builders Without Borders was launched in the fall of 1999 by natural builders wanting to increase the availability of sustainable, low-cost natural building options for emergency, transitional and permanent housing around the world. We welcome readers to join us as we develop designs, expertise, learning materials and partnerships in pursuit of these goals., 119 Main St. Kingston NM 88042 ph 505-895-5400.

BWB Mission Statement:
“We are an international network of ecological builders with the mission to form partnerships with communities and organizations around the world to create affordable housing from local materials and to work together for a sustainable future. We believe the solution to homelessness is not merely housing, but a local population trained to provide housing for themselves.”

Benjamin Miner is a musician and carpenter interning at the Black Range Lodge. Derek Roff is associate editor for The Last Straw. They are both active members of Builders Without Borders.

BWB is an international network of ecological builders working together for a sustainable future.