Everyone’s first impression of straw bale is The Three Little Pigs,” laments Mark Jensen. At Red Feather Development, not only is straw bale not the stuff of fairy tales, it’s a material that’s providing an affordable, efficient solution for families in need on American Indian reservations.

Based in Bozeman, Mont., and founded in 1994, Red Feather Development builds about two homes a year in Native American communities in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota as part of its American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative. In 1999, the group began building with straw bale “as a feasible means for reservation communities to use their own resources to improve the housing issues facing many of their reservations.”

Like Habitat for Humanity, incoming families contribute sweat equity to the home and pay construction material costs. Straw-bale is a straightforward method volunteers can manage. “When you’re building with stick frame, there’s a lot of power tools you need, there’s complicated joinery and nailing patterns and all this stuff that can be intimidating in the community we work with,” says Jensen, Red Feather’s program director. “With straw bale, if you can play with Legos or stack blocks, you can build the main structure of your home. It’s a very simple and unintimidating way of building.”

Indeed, Red Feather homes go up in as little as 28 days, and the group estimates the technique saves up to 60% in labor costs.

Of course, straw bale’s environmental benefits—namely a tight envelope, with an R-value ranging from 35 to 45—also are beneficial to the cause. Straw bale also utilizes a locally obtained agricultural waste product that otherwise would be burned.

In addition to sustainable straw bale, each of the homes includes a solar thermal system that provides up to 80% of the hot water needed for domestic use and radiant-heat flooring. Rainwater catchment systems also are installed.

An indirect benefit of straw bale is the curiosity factor, which helps further Red Feather’s efforts to foster community outreach and empowerment. “The more they see it, the more curious they are to help, and the next thing you know they’re helping you build,” Jensen explains.

Jensen is continuing this mission with his own straw-bale home in Bozeman, currently under construction and being used as a community public workshop. The 2,200-square-foot house will get 90% of its energy from PV panels and a solar hot water system and will include energy-efficient appliances, rainwater catchment, and water-conserving fixtures.

For more information on straw bale, Jensen recommends the Web site and newsletter Last Straw Journal (www.strawhomes.com). Visit Red Feather’s site, www.redfeather.org, for more resources, as well as additional project pictures and information on the organization’s outreach programs. —Katy Tomasulo