The Community Rebuilds Fall 2012 Crew works to plaster the newly constructed straw bale affordable home. Pictured left to right: Julia Hausman; Adrienne Stolwyk; Ekrem Duygu; Jeffrey Hart; Kate Heath (instructor); Cesar Rizzo Gomez; Tyler Shean; Rob Harris; Dorthe Jorgensen; and Courtney Boyd. Photo courtesy of Community Rebuilds

As Emily Niehaus knows well – if you build it, they will come.

Niehaus is the executive director of Community Rebuilds, a Moab-based non-profit organization that seeks to build energy-efficient housing for low-income families. The “seemingly crazy” idea for an organization was developed by Niehaus when, out of frustration as a loan officer at a local credit union, she continually had to turn away Moab families seeking housing financial assistance.

Now, just over five years later, Community Rebuilds is setting the bar across the nation for natural materials housing construction and education. In an announcement from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development last week, Community Rebuilds was granted a coveted Section 523 grant “to assist low-income rural families in obtaining adequate housing.”

Dave Conine, Utah’s USDA Rural Development State Director, said that Community Rebuilds is being funded as a demonstration project based on the organization’s model of education and construction. He said that Community Rebuilds has already provided an outstanding example of how communities can provide affordable housing and he expects this funding and recognition from USDA Rural Development to further the organization’s “extraordinary vision.”

“I admire Emily tremendously,” said Conine. “This is a great story about a young woman who, as a loan officer, was tired of turning people down for housing in her community.”

According to Conine, the USDA Rural Development agency is working to expand upon their self-help housing model by recognizing newer and more innovative ways of assisting low-income rural residents achieve affordable and sustainable housing.

This grant allocation to Community Rebuilds marks the first time in more than a decade that a Utah housing organization will receive national funding. The Southeastern Utah Association of Governments was also awarded funding as announced by USDA Rural Development last week. The two additional Utah grants bring the total number of statewide self-help housing grantees to nine. Conine is proud of the additional grants given to Utah organizations.

“I love the self-help housing model. It gets people into affordable housing and creates stable neighborhoods and communities.”

As evidenced by a year of recognition for Community Rebuilds, Conine is not the only one who thinks Emily “walks on water.”

Last spring, Niehaus was honored as a White House “Champion of Change,” a program established by the Obama administration to recognize ordinary Americans making a difference in their communities. And, Community Rebuilds was recognized this week as the Housing Agency of the Year at the annual Utah Housing Coalition conference in Salt Lake City.

“After only a few years, this recognition is certainly humbling but also incredibly validating of the work we’re doing,” said Niehaus.

The work Community Rebuilds is doing, Niehaus said, is two-fold: first, to build affordable housing and second, to grow natural builders. These two goals became the vision of Community Rebuilds in 2006 when Niehaus filed for 501c3 status.

Since then, Niehaus has established a program that builds energy-efficient straw bale homes to income-qualifying families and has created a natural building educational opportunity for intern builders who come to Moab from around the world to take part in the home construction.

At no cost to them, the intern builders spend four months working under licensed contractors and expert natural building instructors learning valuable skills within the world of natural materials home construction. During the four month time period, a home is built for a family in Moab.

The home floor plan, originally designed by Wayne Bingham in 2010 and updated this year, is a three bedroom, two bathroom layout designed to save cost on the construction materials and also on the long term energy costs that accompany home ownership.

Community Rebuilds is currently building its fourth house in the Moab community with plans underway for number five in the Evans subdivision. Next spring, Community Rebuilds will go beyond Moab and build its first home in Durango, Colo.

Niehaus credits Eric Plourde, the organization’s local expert instructor, in taking Community Rebuilds “to the next level of awesomeness.”

“When I was approached by Community Rebuilds, I saw it as the melding of two of my favorite worlds: the challenge of leading a group of amazing people (many of whom have little or no construction experience) and the building of a smart, energy efficient home from foundation to finish,” said Plourde, who in his previous life worked as an instructor for Outward Bound. “It seemed like a bit of a dream job, and so far, it has been.”

Plourde said that the national recognition and federal grant money from USDA Rural Development is about “equity, efficiency and education” – the essence of the Community Rebuilds mission.

“We are not just building homes here. We are helping the recipients of these homes to fully settle in Moab and more comfortably enjoy this community we all love.”