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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Straw Bale Homes

Air Date: Week of

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A poor community in Sonora, Mexico is replacing rows of tarpaper shacks with functional straw bale homes for little money. As part of Homelands Productions "Border Stories" series, producer Alan Weisman brings us the story of a town finding a semblance of dignity and pride in their surroundings.


CURWOOD: In the last 50 years, human habitation on earth has gone from being two-thirds rural, one-third urban to nearly the opposite. It's the lure of higher incomes and a more exciting lifestyle that helps draw people to the cities. But once there, they often encounter a different reality. There are few well-paying jobs and no land for poor people to feed their families with subsistence farming. Instead, they now fill immense shanty towns that ring the cities of the developing world. These poor cities will remain squalid unless people find a way to have dignity and take pride in their surroundings. As part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions, Alan Weisman takes us to the northern Mexican state of Sonora to meet people who are trying to do just that.

(Beeps and motors of heavy machinery)

A. STEEN: Look how many of these things there are. There's thousands of them. And they're going up -- I keep wondering, well, who's occupying them all?

B. STEEN: We were just on one segment of it, Alan. If we drove you around the city, you can see it's surrounded by these things.

WEISMAN: I'm driving with homebuilders Bill and Athena Steen through one of the many housing projects shooting up around Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, birthplace of the green revolution. Obregon is known as Mexico's bread basket because it's surrounded by over a million acres of wheat. But lately, more and more fields are disappearing under rows of identical, uninsulated concrete boxes that go for miles.

B. STEEN: Puny little houses with no space for anything. No space to grow anything, no space to do anything. Just, you know -- and particularly in the hotter months of the year, just to suffer and just swelter in these things.

(Heavy machinery)

WEISMAN: Nevertheless, Mexico wants to build 760,000 of these cubes a year to meet its exploding housing demand. Yet, at $20,000 for a unit under 500 square feet, and with a 20-year federal mortgage automatically garnished from your paycheck, you have to have made it to the middle class to own one.

A. STEEN: What shocks me is that there are all this many people who would want to live in these things.

B. STEEN: Oh, God.

A. STEEN: There's a lot of them.

WEISMAN: Athena Steen is from New Mexico's historic Santa Clara Pueblo. She first met her husband Bill when he came to see a house she'd built with super-thick walls made from bales of straw stacked like giant bricks and then mud-plastered. Bill, who is part Mexican and grew up in an adobe home in Arizona, was impressed. Years later, married, they co-authored a best-selling book titled The Straw Bale House. In 1994, the Steens got a call from the Save the Children Foundation here in Ciudad Obregon. The director wanted to know if a locally abundant waste product, wheat straw, which just gets burned after harvest, might serve as building material for people too poor even to live in faceless housing projects.

(To the Steens): So where are we going now?

B. STEEN: We are going out to an area totally on the outskirts of town, beyond colonias, called Xochitl... These people that we're going to be visiting, the houses that we'll be seeing, are actually squatters on what was, what was, what is ejido property, community property.

(Mexican singers and guitars)

WEISMAN: The ejidos were public lands worked communally by Mexico's small farmers since the days of the Mexican Revolution, until the government recently privatized them. The displaced former peasants now are part of Mexico's huge underclass, clinging to urbanity's edge in huts of discarded sheet metal, plywood scraps, cardboard, and laminated tar paper. Most can't even afford straw bales.

(Singing continues)

WEISMAN: Yet this Sunday, 60 people are gathered at a church construction site outside Ciudad Obregon. They are giving prayers of thanks. Miraculously, they all now have snug, beautiful homes.

(Children shouting, voices)

A. STEEN: There will be lots of mud. You can make miracles with mud. (Laughs)

WEISMAN: Athena Steen, Juanita Lopez, and Juanita's sister-in-law Guillermina stand at a trough made from a 55-gallon drum sliced lengthwise. They're up to their elbows in chocolate-y muck, mixing it with handfuls of straw tossed in by Juanita's daughters. The women wear long skirts. The girls are in lacy white Sunday dresses with purple ribbons. But no one seems to mind the mud spattering their clothing.


WEISMAN: Athena, what is the percentage of straw to mud? Do you have any idea?

A. STEEN: (Laughs) That's a good question for Bill, since I don't think that way. (Laughs)

B. STEEN: What's that?

A. STEEN: What's the percentage of straw to mud?

B. STEEN: It depends who mixes it. Emiliano said about 60-40.

A. STEEN: Yeah. So that's about right.

WEISMAN: That mixture produces bricks much lighter than conventional adobe, but with the great advantage of straw bales: cool in the summer, warm in the winter. They're also water-resistant and strong enough to use for the tall church underway here in Xochitl. And they can be cut with machetes to special size without crumbling, like for this vaulted roof that Juanita's husband Emiliano is putting on the house he's building for his mother.


B. STEEN: In traditional brick and block construction, they dig a hole, toss the earth aside, and pour in something else. We're using the earth they tossed. Nice mud?

A. STEEN: Ooh, nice mud, like cream. Whipping cream. (Laughs)


WEISMAN: Over a pan of sizzling chili peppers, sisters Elizama and Rebeca Lopez recount how things have changed around here.

ELIZAMA [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Here there is no water or power. It would get so hot in a cardboard house you felt like you were in an oven. Many kids were dehydrated and had stomach ailments.

WEISMAN: Their husbands had promised they'd build better houses, but years passed and they were still living in shacks.

REBECA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We waited and waited, but the men were always away working, even though they earned very little. Barely enough to eat on, certainly not enough to build with.

WEISMAN: Then the Steens were invited down by Save the Children. They soon realized, however, that many people spurned humble materials like straw and adobe. Only cement symbolized value and progress. They decided they needed to build a showcase. The result was Save the Children's 5,000-square-foot office building, a classic courtyard design with vaulted and domed roof, its walls executed in straw bales plastered with richly-colored natural clays. It immediately became known for its striking beauty and comfort. These sisters were among the women hired to make bookshelves and benches from local bamboo, straw, and clay.

B. STEEN: They had formed an association or a group, Mujeres Activas de Xochitl or something of that sort. That group of initially maybe 30 or so, it really settled in to about ten who went on to really stick with and to build their own places.

WEISMAN: When the office was done, the Steens got a letter, signed by the entire women's group. They asked to be taught how to build. The first house was for the neediest among them, a young woman with four small children, whose husband was in prison. Gradually, each got her turn.

E. LOPEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: My husband said flatly he wouldn't let me do it, but little by little when he wasn't around, I built a kitchen, then this roof, and the hallway. Now he lets me work in mud all I want.

WEISMAN: She learned they could make their own bricks of straw and mud for free, instead of having to buy straw bales. Old chunks of broken concrete could be turned into floors that look like flagstone. Lime discarded from a local acetylene plant could be recycled and mixed with clays for colored plaster. The result was a house picturesque enough for Santa Fe, New Mexico, but costing at most a few hundred dollars. Best of all, it was always comfortable.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

B. STEEN: They used to joke, you know, that you'd have to go outside in the winter to get warm, right? And the same in the summer to get cool, because it would be so cold on a winter morning or it would be so hot in the summer evening that the only place of comfort was out of it.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

B. STEEN: All these tar paper shacks built out of scraps and corrugated asphalt, they call casas de carton, houses of cardboard scraps.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

B. STEEN: You know, I was just thinking about it one day, and it was, like, became an obvious jump from carton to --

A. STEEN: Well, casas que cantan is, you know, something that's more traditional building material and it's more beautiful --

WEISMAN: And casas que cantan means?

A. STEEN: Houses that sing.

B. STEEN: But yesterday I was watching just them sort of picking up on it. Now that the women who are involved in that first phase seem to have their houses quickly, they were adapting it yesterday to casas que me encantan: houses that enchant me.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

VALENZUELA: When we build our office is when the people get more confidence. And when they see these models of different type of roof, different type of floors, different color of clays, so is natural. Everything is according to what the earth and God has given us.

WEISMAN: Jorge Valenzuela is the director of Save the Children in Ciudad Obregon.

VALENZUELA: Now people are coming from different communities to see our building, and they want to build like this. The problem is that we don't -- the bank, local banks, we don't have credit for these houses. They say they need to be constructed by brick. So we cannot get credit for this kind of construction, is the problem.

WEISMAN: Are you trying to convince the banks?

VALENZUELA: The problem is that they belong to Mexico City, all the banks we have here in this state, long, long way from here. And the best way is families here, local fundraising. And now that we are getting some funds from Inter-American Foundation, it will be good for a lot of people.

WEISMAN: And so, despite closed-minded bankers, in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, the enchantment has continued and is starting to spread. More than 200 comfortable, attractive, low-cost houses have now been built here using local clay and the straw that otherwise would have been burned into clouds of soot and carbon dioxide. And with joint private and municipal sponsorship, work on 300 more is about to begin. One simple answer to Mexico's modern urban stress, it turns out, is to return to its ancient earthen architectural heritage.

VALENZUELA: One advantage of this house is the whole family can participate. Women, children, women working with the straw, the straw is easy to manage and to build. And children, they like to play with mud, and it's very -- they feel very proud that they built their own house.

WEISMAN: Proud enough, perhaps, to show others how. Like the women of Xochitl have done. Maybe even proud enough of their community of cozy new houses to want to stay instead of fleeing across the border.

VALENZUELA: For Mexican people to have a house, I think, is a dream in all life. And to have this fresh and comfortable house is, I think, one of the dreams for each family in Mexico.

WEISMAN: And where does comfort come from? To builder Athena Steen, it's more than just the right temperature. It's in the right materials, the ones that carry our imprint.

A. STEEN: You walk in here and you can definitely feel the hands of the people who worked it.

B. STEEN: It's not machines. It's not, you know, it's not just a mechanized product.

A. STEEN: I watch people coming to the workshops or come here to work, and they haven't touched earth for years. And it's amazing what happens to them after a day of mixing mud. They become like little kids again. There's a new life. Their eyes light up. They -- something so simple, so basic, can supply so much. I mean, that's -- that's hopeful.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

WEISMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Alan Weisman reporting.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

CURWOOD: Our story on the straw bale homes of Sonora is part of the Border Stories from Homelands Productions and funded in part by the Ford Foundation. We had production help from Rhonda Bernstein and Sandy Tolan.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)



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