by Greg Bloom
From its beginnings in 1995, in a Catholic church in Sunland Park, New Mexico, Tierra Madre has become the largest straw-bale home community in the United States, according to Lothar Fastje, Tierra Madre’s construction manager. Despite this notable status, Tierra Madre’s residents and administrative staff don’t spend much time emphasizing the size of their 20 home community: they are much more interested in talking about how inexpensive and energy efficient their homes are and how they built a community instead of just another subdivision.
Long-time, Sunland Park resident Lupe Bahena was one of the first people to become involved with Tierra Madre and she remembers well the group’s beginning in 1995. According to Bahena, there were three nuns involved with her church, all of them named Jean, and they kept asking church members what sort of programs would most benefit the community.
While Sunland Park has serious needs in health care, job creation and other areas, church members decided that they would work on obtaining better housing. According to Fastje, many area residents live on rented lots, many of them in old, small substandard mobile homes. Bahena agrees with this saying that she was paying more in rent than she now pays on her home loan.
Cheap and Energy Efficient
The price of Tierra Madre homes ranges from $42,000 to $45,000. This is for a 1,500 square foot, four bedroom, two bathroom home. The resultant mortgage translates to about $200 per month.
One reason that the houses can be built for such a low price is because the families put in 60% of the homes’ labor. Such labor includes painting, roofing, tiling, putting up walls and more. Indeed, the only work the families do not do is that which is prohibited by New Mexico law: plumbing, electric, foundation, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
To finish their homes in the allotted twelve months, home-owners work thirty hours per week, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and every Saturday and Sunday.
Another reason the homes are inexpensive is because Tierra Madre’s land was not purchased but was leased from the government for 99 years. This means that owners pay only $120 per year for their lot.
Hay Bales: Saving in Many Ways
Not only are the houses cheap to build with so much volunteer labor, but they stay cheap to live in once they are finished. This is because of the homes’ hay bale construction.
While inexpensive homes can be built with wooden frames, using hay bales instead of 2x4s for walls allows homes to be built even more cheaply. Although wood is still used at the corners of the homes and in other crucial spots to bear weight, hay bales are used to make the homes’ walls. Fastje points out that this saves approximately $2,000 per home due to less money being spent on wood.
Hay is also environmentally friendly in that it helps save forested areas. Hay can be regrown quickly in fields whereas logged out forests need decades to recover.
Also, because hay bales make for very thick walls, they offer a lot of insulation to homeowners. While 2x4 construction with insulation in the walls would have an insulation rating of R15, hay bales provide R30 protection, according to Fastje.
Inexpensive to Heat and Cool
Other aspects of the homes in the Tierra Madre community make them cheap to heat and cool when compared with the average American home. Perhaps most simple and notable is the way in which the roof slightly hangs out over a home’s walls. This overhang keeps the summer sun, which is high in the sky, from coming in the house. This means that the house stays cooler in the summer.
Conversely, winter sun enters the house through large front windows and heats the home’s tile floors. Over the course of the day, the floor gives off the heat it has absorbed from the sun.
While such a heating and cooling mechanism may seem trivial, it is not. Tierra Madre houses have central heaters but owners have never had to use them. This is because the homes are well insulated and can gain all the heat they need from the sun.
During the summer, the houses’ interiors stay cool despite high outdoor temperatures. On a typical early summer, Southern New Mexico day, when it is 98 degrees outside, the homes will be at just 85 degrees inside.
Water is also cheap to heat as well. A roof-top, solar water heater keeps a 40-gallon water heater at 150-degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. This is so hot that the home’s electric water heater never has to turn onit simply serves as a place to hold hot water. In winter, the solar water heater acts as a preheater so that a home’s water heater comes on only infrequently.
Water bills are also held lower because of a thrifty waste-water system that separates black waters (toilet waste) from gray water (shower and kitchen water). Black water from homes is sent into the sewer system but gray water from a number of homes goes to an underground cistern. This water is later run through an underground irrigation system by a solar-powered pump to irrigate plantings (which are modest in scale as the community has agreed to respect the natural desert ecosystem and not put down acres of green grass as is common even in the water-scarce Southwest).
A sense of community at Tierra Madre is instilled from the very beginning. Home builders (families) don’t work alone. Instead, six houses are started at a time and families work together going from house to house. Thus, every home has a roof on it before everyone begins their interior work.
Once Tierra Madre is finished, there will be 47 homes on the 20 acre area. Residents, who meet on a regular basis, have plans for a new community center and there will also be a playground for children and a community garden.
One recent event, which tested the limits of both the homes and the community, was a fire which began inside the walls of one of the six houses currently under construction. According to Fastje, a welder was at work when hay bales caught on fire. Because the wall was not yet finished with stucco and the fire had access to oxygen, high winds spread flames rapidly. Sparks from the first house were blown into another house under construction and it too burst into flames. Both of the homes were quickly destroyed.
Fastje pointed out a finished home that was between the two that burned down. Despite heat intense enough to crack a couple of its windows, the house did not sustain any other damage. Fastje explained this lack of damage by noting that hay bale walls are very safe once they are covered with stucco.
Because the fires set back construction so much on the destroyed homes (only the foundations survived), the families that were to occupy the houses may have to delay their move in dates. However, the other families that were building with them said that they will not move into their homes until they can all do so at the same timesomething that has become a Tierra Madre tradition and shows that people in the community are bound by more than the commonalties of building materials.
Reprinted from “Frontera NorteSur”, an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico.