Community Rebuilds executive director Emily Niehaus and new home-owner Steve Langello pose in front of a recently completed straw-bale home. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Moab now has one more unit of affordable housing thanks to the efforts of Community Rebuilds, a local nonprofit organization that helps qualifying residents build energy-efficient, straw-bale homes.

At an open house on Friday, June 13, Community Rebuilds showcased it’s eighth new home with proud owner, Steve Langello. Langello, who has lived in Moab since 2001, looked into all kinds of alternative housing before finding his way into a Community Rebuilds straw-bale home.

“I was looking at a shipping container or a yurt,” he said. “I don’t need a lot of space.”

Now he lives in an energy-efficient, 952-square-foot, brand new home. Or almost brand new. Many of the fixtures, appliances, windows, and doors, are recycled; some from his former trailer home.

Affordability and sustainability are key components of Community Rebuilds’ mission, and the more materials that are recycled the better.

The homes are built at a cost of $100,000 for income-qualifying buyers, and their high insulation value, energy efficiency, and passive solar design help keep heating and cooling costs down over the long run.

Though unbeknownst to him at the time, Langello was a key figure in the foundation of Community Rebuilds, when, back in 2005, he was faced with losing his home-site in the Powerhouse Lane trailer park. A conversation with Emily Niehaus, founder and executive director of Community Rebuilds, sparked the idea for developing a program that would help provide housing for families by replacing existing, dilapidated trailers with energy-efficient homes.

“I remember thinking, Steve’s trailer is going down,” Niehaus said. “We need a program to replace trailers in town.”

Trailer homes once proliferated in Moab, in response to a rapid increase in need for housing during the uranium boom. Many of these older trailers are poorly insulated, and energy inefficient. Lacking foundations, banks won’t loan on them which makes them unreachable as affordable housing. In addition, many of these older trailers have fallen into a state of disrepair.

Niehaus cited a 2005 housing study done by the Association of Local Governments that determined that 35 percent of Moab’s housing was dilapidated. Much of this was because of the abundance of trailer housing in town, most of which were constructed prior to 1976.

Niehaus hatched a plan to replace dilapidated trailers, with affordable, energy efficient, straw bale homes.

“I saw a need, I saw a product,” Niehaus said. “I just needed someone to build them.”

Community Rebuilds relies on volunteers as part of a student-education program to provide most of the labor on its straw-bale homes. A paid instructor and general contractor Eric Plourde, of Eco Logic Design Build, oversees the project.

Volunteer-builder Mark Pryshlak, of Buffalo, N.Y., first came through Moab on a tour called “Bike and Build,” where he and others rode bicycles across America and helped build low-income housing for Habitat for Humanity.

“I thought straw-building was like a hut or something,” Pryshlak said. But then I discovered Community Rebuilds, and met Emily, and I was blown away.”

Pryshlak returned the following year and went to work on Langello’s house.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “We built this place from the ground up. With most other programs, you only come in for one step of the process, but here, you learn all these different techniques. Now I can build a home.”

Straw-bale construction, though not yet mainstream, is not new. Some of the earliest straw-bale homes in the U.S. date back to the early 1900s. The 1990s saw the birth of a modern “Straw Bale Revolution,” and the publication of “The Straw Bale House,” in 1994 spurred it forward.

“I built my first straw-bale structure almost 20 years ago,” Community Rebuilds natural builder and instructor Doug Nichols said. “It was a shed in my parents back yard. “Then I moved to Crestone, Colo., which was an epicenter for alternative building and built my first straw-bale house.”

Nichols has built over 40 straw-bale homes as well as a public library, and Langello’s house is his second with Community Rebuilds. He credits Niehaus with removing a lot of the stigma from the straw-home concept.

“If you build one or two, people say that’s novel,” he said. “But when you’ve built eight, then you’ve really got something there.”

Straw-bale homes in the 1990s were often built in areas that lacked uniform building codes, and many were constructed as “load-bearing,” where the weight of the roof trusses literally sat right on top of the bale walls. This type of construction worked well for out-of-pocket, do-it-yourself types, who lived in remote areas, but they were difficult to insure, and it was nearly impossible to secure a construction loan.

As the desire for straw-bale homes became more mainstream, post-and-beam structures designed to carry the load were developed to comply with local building codes. Community Rebuilds has worked with banks and local building officials to come up with a fail-safe, fully compliant structure.

“(Straw-bale construction is) part of the cultural norm here,” Nichols said.

Affordable housing remains at the core of Community Rebuilds mission.

“The housing need in Moab is not more subdivisions,” Niehaus said. “It’s helping the families who live here have better housing.”

One thing Niehaus has concerns about is the effect the oil and gas industry will have on housing.

“If we’ve learned anything from Vernal, housing will absolutely be affected by oil and gas development,” she said. “When higher-wage oil workers move into town, it will raise the cost of housing in an area where housing costs are already high.”

Nevertheless, Community Rebuilds will continue to provide opportunities for local families to have energy-efficient, affordable houses for the foreseeable future. It currently has two more projects in the works.

For his part, Langello is happy to be in his new home, which, ironically, is back near where his old trailer house sat at the former Powerhouse Lane trailer park.

“I’m literally in my old backyard,” he said.

He thanks Emily, and Community Rebuilds for making his home possible, but he also cautions people by saying that it is “pretty hands-on for the owner.”

“If you want one of these, it isn’t easy,” he said. “There’s a lot of work involved.”

“The housing need in Moab is not more subdivisions, it’s helping the families who live here have better housing.”

Program focuses on affordability, sustainability