How straw homes could help solve the First Nations housing crisis

Indigenous communities across the province are dealing with inadequate housing. Farmers’ fields may hold the answer
By Charnel Anderson - Published on January 8, 2019
construction on a straw house
Workers from the Endeavour Centre construct an office building for the Trillium Lakelands Elementary Teachers’ Local in Lindsay, Ontario, in 2014. (Courtesy of the Endeavour Centre)

You’ve probably seen the pale-yellow bales of straw dotting farmers’ fields throughout Ontario. The remnants of cereal harvests, they can be used as fodder and biofuel — and, increasingly, as construction material, forming and insulating the walls of rural homes.

Straw-bale construction may conjure up images of a big bad wolf, but the results are a lot sturdier than in the fairytales. Consisting of stacked straw bales covered with plaster or stucco, it’s fire-resistant and sustainable — and First Nations communities looking for culturally appropriate housing and infrastructure options are starting to embrace it.

For nearly 20 years, Becky Big Canoe has been living in a straw-bale home that she built herself in Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, a community of more than 250 on Lake Simcoe. “The only thing that’s really different about my house,” she says, “is that instead of exterior walls with studs and pink insulation and vapour barrier, it’s straw bale, stacked, and we used cement-lime plaster to be able to do it quickly and cheaply.”

Big Canoe was first introduced to natural building methods through books by Michael Reynolds, the American architect and founder of Earthship Biotecture, who pioneered “earthships” — homes built with natural and recycled materials and engineered to harness solar and wind energy. Big Canoe initially wanted to build an earthship for herself, but she opted for the straw-bale house because it was more affordable.

“I like it a lot. I think it’s one of the answers we’re looking for,” she says, “for our housing problems.” Many First Nations communities across Canada are dealing with a lack of adequate housing. In 2016, one in five Indigenous people in Canada was living in a home in need of major repairs, and one in four lived in a home that was overcrowded.

Big Canoe says that there’s an affinity between Indigenous culture and sustainable-building techniques. “I think sustainable building is our natural position as Indigenous people,” she says. “It’s a word that developers have used to adopt the principles that we used to live by.”

Marianne Griffith, director of the London-based non-profit Building Better, says she’s seen a spike in interest in sustainable-living projects from Indigenous communities, including Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, which has launched the Chippewa Sustainable Living Project, a two-hectare site that will showcase sustainable living technologies like an off-the-grid home and self-sufficient tiny homes. “Most recently we’ve worked predominantly with First Nations,” she says. “It wasn’t necessarily something that we set out to do, but it’s looking like it’s our new direction.”

According to Chris Magwood, an instructor at Endeavour Centre, a sustainable-building school in Peterborough, the cost of such ventures is comparable to that of conventional construction. “Material costs are lower,” he says, “but labour costs are higher. On balance, it ends up being very similar.”

Sustainable building, though, does come with challenges. For example, each build has to be tailored to its site, whether for cultural or climatic reasons. The first adobe-plastered earthship looks right at home in the semi-arid climate of Taos, New Mexico — the same couldn’t be said of an earthen building in the sub-arctic climate of northern Ontario.

straw bales being unloaded from a truck

Cooler climates or higher humidex ratings don’t rule out sustainable-building methods altogether, but they do mean that engineers have to adapt their designs to suit the climate and local resources. Straw-bale construction doesn’t work well in humid regions, as the straw needs to stay relatively dry to preserve its integrity, and homes built in cooler climates may require an additional source of heating.

“There’s a lot to figure into a design so that it doesn’t just end up being, ‘Here’s a cheap version of our suburban box — here you go,’” says Magwood. “Which is what I think [First Nations have] had lots of and don’t need or want anymore.”

Site-specific building allows for customized designs that incorporate cultural elements. “We came up with a few key design elements, like a round meeting space with a central fire hearth in the middle, certain alignments to the sun and to east and west,” says Griffith, who joined Magwood, his students, and Chief Myeengun Henry from Chippewas of the Thames last summer to discuss what Indigenous people look for in sustainable design.

Big Canoe found building her own home empowering — and she wants to help more women experience that feeling. That’s why she has started her own non-profit organization, the Women’s Sustainable Living Project, which will train women and two-spirit people in sustainable-construction techniques. She hopes to have the program up and running this year.

While Big Canoe’s neighbours on Georgina Island were initially skeptical about her straw-bale home, she says that skepticism has turned into interest. “At first, people laughed at me and thought it was a big joke,” she says. “Now, it’s like, ‘You know what — I think I’d like to get a straw-bale house, too!’”

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