Alternative building takes off

Construction in South Routt includes homes using straw bales and solar energy

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These days, a drive through the neighborhoods of Oak Creek, Stagecoach and other rural reaches of South Routt County reveals that something alternative is going on. There are innovative new straw bale homes going up in Oak Creek and entire neighborhoods in Stagecoach using solar electricity.

Among the homeowners and the builders, there is debate whether this is a surge of environmentalism or just good economics.

"There are no environmentalists," said Stagecoach resident James Brooks, who owns The Solar Alternative and has been helping homeowners put photovoltaic systems on their homes for about seven years. He said it all comes down to what it costs people to build. The cheapest investment usually wins, Brooks said.

"The determining factor is price. People will balance the cost between solar electricity and being off the grid. If tapping in (to the grid) is less expensive than solar, then that's the way to go for people," Brooks said

As it turns out, in many rural areas of South Routt County it is cheaper to go "off the grid," he said. And once a solar electric system is up and running, he said at least 95 percent of the people are really happy they did it.

The South Shore subdivision next to Stagecoach Reservoir now has 18 homes running on alternative electric systems that are not connected to power lines. And although it is less concentrated, subdivisions at the remote southern end of Stagecoach on Lynx Pass and outside Toponas also are dotted with homes donning solar panels.

Brooks said solar electricity is growing in places where it would be difficult and expensive to bring in power lines. The cost of a solar electric system, about $20,000 to $22,000 on average, outweighs the cost of dragging in a new line for these people, he said.

For Brett KenCairn, who is leading a project with three straw bale homes in Oak Creek, the prospect of alternative construction methods has similar cost effective themes.

KenCairn and his partners have a strong commitment to sustainable building practices, using local materials and creating local economy. But one of the highlights of his project is a demonstration that it is possible to build homes that are not only sustainable, but financially and technologically accessible -- especially for affordable housing construction.

KenCairn and neighbors Nicole and Brian Idzahl are building homes with a new technique that uses straw bale panels similar to conventional insulated panels. Their third neighbor, Mike Brennan, is building his home in the traditional straw bale style by stacking the individual bales. With temperature and moisture sensors in the walls, these homes will be a living experiment for innovative construction technology.

The new straw panel technology is a faster way of building, more uniform and cheaper, KenCairn said. As an affordable housing advocate who has been instrumental in bringing the self help housing project to Oak Creek, KenCairn is actively seeking new options to seed affordable and environmentally friendly construction options for people.

After reading about new straw panel technology (essentially straw panels inside a post and beam structure), experimenting with it last December and working the glitches out with area engineers and building officials, KenCairn said he has a new building system that is suitable to pass code.

It also is suitable to pass the scrutiny of the Department of Agriculture, which is expected to finance the mortgages on KenCairn, Brennan and Idzahl's three affordable homes through the "502 mortgage program." This program also funnels funding to programs such as Mutual Self Help Housing.

The three mortgages already have been approved at the local and state levels and have been referred to the national level for USDA funding. The state director has told them project approval is expected any day, KenCairn said.

"This could be viable for Oak Creek's self-help project as well," KenCairn said. He said the USDA wouldn't typically approve financing on unconventional construction, but they have been able to demonstrate their project is viable because it is cheaper than conventional construction, extremely energy efficient and a process that is easy for people to learn. "Nobody has ever done this in the United States before," he said.

"I think we can set the full wall system in one or two days for a single story house," KenCairn said.

The walls aren't lumpy, they are extremely thick to keep the houses warm and cool and they make for a quiet house, he said. "You have a sense of a really solid structure."

KenCairn will be using earthen plasters to cover his straw panels -- plasters created from the dirt he dug up during excavation on site. When he starts plastering, KenCairn said he will hold a public workshop to show people how simple, inexpensive and viable this alternative is, as well.

All of this technology is adding to a local body of knowledge about sustainable construction that is easy to learn and often less expensive to use. Living, functioning resources are on hand for anyone who wants to give it a try, as KenCairn and other South Routt County residents have demonstrated.

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