Dignity Village builds its first straw bale house

by Jack Tafari and Jeff Maag

As this story goes to press, Dignity Village, the United States' longest running, officially sanctioned tentcity, is putting the finishing touches on the latest addition to its current housing stock, a straw bale house.

The house was built over several weekends in May and June at the village in cooperation with The City Repair Project and the Rebuilding Center and as part of the Village Building Convergence which converged on Portland, Oregon, at that time. Led by building guru Lydia Doleman, the project demonstrated just how easy and how much fun it can be for a small group of people without a lot of prior building knowledge to build their own home on the cheap. And building on the cheap, of course, isn't a bad thing at all, especially to a fledgling community/organization of formerly homeless people like Dignity Village. According to Dignity's treasurer Tim McCarthy who helped build the house, its cost was a little over $500 US. $500 isn't a bad price and makes the village's straw bale house a shining example of truly affordable housing.

Dignity's straw bale house was built using natural building techniques which ensure minimal damage to the planet's teetering environment. The locally obtained, non-GMO straw bales, sand, clay and water used in its construction are all, of course, thoroughly biodegradable. All of the lumber used in its construction was recycled from demolition projects and thus saved from that sad, one-way trip to the local landfill. The straw bales in the house's walls result in a cool interior even on the baking asphalt of the village's current Sunderland Yard site, a quality enhanced by the shade of the large overhang on the building's south face and its arbor for grape vines. The house is wired for electricity which will be generated by the village's windmill. And the house, with its thick straw bale walls and passive solar features such as lots of glass on its south face mean that it would be warm and dry in Oregon's wet, cold winters.

Unfortunately Dignity's straw bale house will be deconstructed by the time Winter arrives and the natural materials used to build it, save the lumber which we'll save and take with us to our next site, will go back to our mother Earth. Dignity's lease on our current site at Portland's leaf composting facility at Sunderland Yard runs out on 1st October and the City wants the site back for the composting of this Autumn's leaves. Although our site development team has screened over sixty sites, none for one reason or another has been suitable for a possible future permasite until just recently. Recently the village has found the willing and friendly seller of a 19.6 acre parcel located far from the center of Portland which seems promising and we're currently examining its feasibility. The site's rough and wild and then there are the neighbours whose concerns have yet to be addressed. Sometimes it seems that although people love the Palestinians, noone wants the West Bank in their backyard!

One thing the village has now that it didn't have when we were simply a rising of poor people is credibility, what city staffer Marshall Runkel refers to as a "track record." We're now incorporated as a 501(C)3 non-profit, a legal entity pursuing our lawful business, and we've helped hundreds of people transition through homelessness into what affordable housing there is in the nearly three years of our existence. It seems the City is now more willing to work with us than it was in our humble beginnings when we were viewed simply as a revolting development among Portland's poor. Once we touch down on permasite which seems very close at hand now, we'll begin a new kind of development, the building of the permanent green, sustainable village we envision.

Dignity Village's first straw bale house is only the start of what we are going to build. To learn more and for updates, check our Web site http://dignityvillage.org .

First published in Groundswell News, reprinted in Sacramento's Homeward Street Journal.