Volunteer Opportunity: Building with Compressed Earth Block and Straw Bale


building straw bale home

Take this opportunity to travel to Trees, Water & People’s Tribal Renewable Energy Program headquarters on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. A trip to Pine Ridge, home of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, will offer volunteers an unforgettable cultural experience and an opportunity to help complete sustainable building projects. This is a wonderful way to give back, learn new skills, and make new friends!

Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge Reservation, SD
When: Thursday, May 1 – Sunday, May 4
Who: Flexible volunteers who like adventure, hard work, lots of fun, and all kinds of weather. Volunteers 14-18 are welcome with adult companions.
Why: To continue our work on our three straw bale homes. A great volunteer and learning experience!

Trip Details


  • TWP will provide volunteers with meals and snacks during the trip.
  • Food purchased by TWP will be simple and tasty, but feel free to bring any food you desire. We will send out a meal plan as the date comes near.
  • TWP cooking equipment and utensils will be available for use.
  • Volunteers will help in preparing all meals and with cleaning up afterwards.


  • All volunteers are responsible for their own transportation and related costs getting to Pine Ridge.
  • We will be happy to coordinate carpools where possible.
  • Our facility is located down a short dirt road. Many sedans have traveled it without any problems.


  • Campers on the Red Cloud Renewable Energy campus must bring their own camping equipment (tent, sleeping bag and pad, etc.). Weather is unpredictable, so only those comfortable in the outdoors should camp.
  • There will be beds available in our dorms, but please bring your own bedding (sheets, blanket, pillow, etc.).

To register, please email the following information to Jeff Hargis at Jeff@treeswaterpeople.org :

  1. Name of all people in your volunteer party
  2. Email addresses for all people in your volunteer party
  3. Your cell phone number
  4. Which days you have available to travel to and work in Pine Ridge
  5. Where you will be coming from and returning to (e.g. many people will be coming from Fort Collins, CO)
  6. Whether you will be camping or require a bunk in our loft (first come, first served!)
  7. Do you need a ride?
  8. Can you offer a ride – if so, to how many people?
  9. Any other questions you may have.

Once we have confirmed your spot, he will email you directions to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center and provide you with additional details. We hope to see you soon!

Volunteer Opportunity: Help Build Straw Bale Homes at Pine Ridge

straw bale home_Pine Ridge

Join us October 11-15 at our Tribal Renewable Energy Program’s headquarters on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for a long weekend of fun, hard work, and new experiences! Although it is only a five hour drive from the Trees, Water & People office in Fort Collins, Colorado, a trip to Pine Ridge offers an experience in an entirely different culture.

What: Volunteer Weekend
Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge, South Dakota
When: Thursday, October 11 – Monday, October 15
Who: Volunteers who like hard work, lots of fun, and all kinds of weather. Volunteers 14-18 are welcome with adult companions.
Why: Take this opportunity to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation, complete two straw bale buildings, and help us clean up our campus after a major wind storm and other destructive events.

Volunteers are invited to arrive anytime after 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 11th. We will host full work days Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Projects will end by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, and volunteers are welcome to head home Sunday evening or on Monday morning. Projects will include adding a roof to one straw bale home, making improvements to a second straw bale home, and removing litter from the campus. Additional needs may arise between now and our trip. Projects will take place almost entirely outdoors, and weather permitting, we will eat group meals outside as well.

This trip is for volunteers who enjoy a little adventure! Flexibility is a must on the reservation. You should also be prepared for a lot of fun!


  • TWP will pay for volunteer’s food during their time in Pine Ridge
  • Food purchased by TWP will be vegan (no animal products). Feel free to bring your own food if you desire.
  • TWP cooking equipment and utensils will be available for use
  • Volunteers will be responsible for preparing all their own food, including group dinners.


  • All volunteers are responsible for their own transportation and related costs getting to Pine Ridge.
  • We are  happy to coordinate carpools where possible
  • Our facility is located down a short dirt road. Many sedans have traveled it.


  • Volunteers are encouraged to camp on the Red Cloud Renewable Energy campus and must bring their own camping equipment to do so. Weather will be unpredictable, so only those comfortable in the outdoors should camp.
  • Also available will be bunks for up to 14 volunteers, who will share a room with up to 6 other individuals (co-ed).

To volunteer, please email Lacey Gaechter at lacey@treeswaterpeople.org, with the following information:

  1. Name of all people in volunteer party
  2. Your email address
  3. Your cell phone number
  4. Days you have available to travel to and work in Pine Ridge
  5. Where you will be coming from and returning to (e.g. most people will be coming from Fort Collins, CO)
  6. Any further questions you may have

Once Lacey has confirmed your spot, I will email you directions to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center and provide you additional details.

We look forward to hearing from you soon! It should be a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.




Notes from the Field: Tiospaye as Inspiration for Sustainable Housing on Pine Ridge

by Jordan Engel, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center Intern


In Western culture, domestic life revolves around the nuclear family: parents and their children who all live under one roof. That is not so with the Lakota. The tiospaye, or extended family, is a multi-generational unit in Lakota culture that typically includes great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and those married or adopted into the family. The word can be broken down into two parts: ti, short for tepee, and ospaye which means a group. In pre-colonial times, Tiospayes would travel together on the plains and share a common tepee. While this family structure is still prevalent on Pine Ridge today, the tiospaye has had trouble adapting to reservation life. Because the bond of kinship is so strong in Lakota culture and because of a severe housing shortage, overcrowding has been a persistent issue on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

trailer Pine Ridge
A trailer destroyed by a recent and very severe wind storm (Photo by Jordan Engel)

Not only are there sometimes dozens of people sharing a cramped space, but those homes that they share are often sub-par old cabins or decades-old trailers that have passed their expiration dates, many of which have been condemned but continue to be lived in. It probably goes without saying that these homes are poorly insulated. Some might remember back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when public outcry exposed FEMA’s emergency relief trailers to be toxic with high levels of urea formaldehyde. Unfortunately, those trailers didn’t just disappear. They were placed on Indian reservations as permanent housing. Toxicity aside, the trailers were designed to be used in sub-tropical hurricane disaster areas which were thousands of miles away from the harsh winters of the Northern plains. The housing crisis is a public health issue now as the Lakota are poisoned by the walls that surround them, and suffer from pneumonia and hypothermia when those walls fail to do their job in the winter months.

All of these were factors that inspired the creation of the Tribal Renewable Energy Program and Lakota Solar Enterprises to help alleviate tiospayes from the bitter cold with a renewable heat source. Recognizing that solar air heaters are only as efficient as the home itself, we began to investigate more solutions to the housing crisis. Retrofitting homes with cellulose insulation was part of the equation but it still didn’t address the housing shortage; so, we began to build.

straw bale frame_Pine RidgeWe developed a type of construction that would be inexpensive and efficient – something that would be appropriate for conditions on Pine Ridge. The answer seemed obvious and straw bale construction was the perfect ecological design for this particular climate. The first straw bale was built at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) in 2010, but was later destroyed by the 2011 flood. The second straw bale home went up in the summer of 2011, the design still evolving and responding to what we learned with the first design. Some of the volunteers from last year’s build were so impressed with the RCREC that when they returned to their communities, they convinced their peers to help fund another straw bale project in Pine Ridge. This year’s straw bale was funded by generous Trees, Water & People donors and two Boston-area churches who “sold a lot of cupcakes” to make it possible to buy the materials and travel to Pine Ridge for the construction.

straw bale home_Pine RidgeWork on the third straw bale home at the RCREC began on Monday last week and was nearly complete by Friday. Gathering materials for the building began a little earlier. Constructed mostly from locally available resources, straw bale homes are regionally very appropriate for Pine Ridge. The one hundred or so bales of straw came from a Nebraska farmer’s wheat field a week before the walls went up, and clay for the plaster came from the reservation, as did the more loamy dirt.

straw bale home_foundation
The conical shape of the straw bale home is symbolic of a tepee.

As with all good homes, our work started with digging a good foundation. A stake was set in ground to mark the middle, and a 12 foot string tied to the stake created a 450 square foot circle that was then dug 2 feet deep and leveled. This sunken floor will capitalize on the Earth’s natural protection and insulation from the elements and later will also be laid with radiant ground source heating and covered with poured concrete. The concrete floor will be an effective source of thermal mass for storing solar energy and keeping the home warm at night. The circular shape of the house is also efficient because circles have the greatest interior space to exposed surface area ratio of any shape. Walls finally went vertical with a 4 foot high foundation layer of earth-filled livestock feed bags purchased from a local farm store. With the foundation off the ground and above the threat of splashing rainwater, straw bales began to be stacked around the circle, leaving gaps only for the door and windows. As that was happening, a crew was busy sifting apart clumps of clay to prepare for the next step: the long and messy task of mudding all the surfaces. The “mud” mixture was an all natural and simple mix of one part clay, one part dirt, a little bit of straw, and enough water to give the mixture a viscous consistency. Different methods of mixing were used simultaneously to speed up the process: in a cement mixer, with a roto-tiller, and the old-fashioned way with a wheelbarrow and shovel. Installing the skeleton for a conical roof was the final step for us. Large eaves will protect the mud plaster from the rain as well as shade the windows from the hot summer sun. The conical shape was symbolic of a tepee and in fact the original plan was to use recycled tepee poles for the roof but in the end we went with lumber.

RCREC volunteers
Thank you volunteers!

There were no blueprints for this design because it is still an evolving prototype. Straw bale construction is still a ever-changing field, and at the RCREC, we’re developing a model of the cheapest, most efficient home available. With each successive straw bale home that we build, we are getting closer to that goal, and soon we will have a flexible and replicable plan that can be exported across the plains. In the meantime, however, we are growing our Solar Warrior Community by providing more housing for the reservation’s first eco-tiospaye.

Aside from being a training center, a farm, and a renewable energy factory, the RCREC is also a home. For three months, I was proud to call it my home and I am grateful to the Red Cloud tiospaye for sharing it with me. As I leave Pine Ridge to go back to school, I’m reminded of something Darrell Red Cloud told me one night as we were looking up at the wide prairie sky. He told me that if I look to the West in the late-night summer sky, the stars form the shape of a tepee. It reminds the Lakota people that there will always be a home for them here on Mother Earth, as long as that tepee shines down upon them.

Photo of the Week: Leo White Bear

Photo of the Week: Leo White Bear of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe works hard to construct the roof of a new straw bale home at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Leo attended the recent Straw Bale Workshop to learn about sustainable housing building techniques and theory, and he was a huge help in constructing the straw bale demo home at RCREC.

Notes from the Field: A Vision Unfolds

By Pete Iengo, TWP Office Manager & Volunteer Coordinator

August 11, 2011: Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Day 3 of the Straw Bale Workshop, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center

Celebrating walls, a roof, and a long days work!

Today we started the day off by stacking the final bales up to the roof and stuffed all the gaps that were between the rest of the bales.  Finally we are ready to have a mud party!    We started on the inside.  The first plops of mud were slapped on by Henry and his grandsons.  It felt appropriate that this process was initiated across Lakota generational lines.  This very well could be an excellent community-based, sustainable solution for people on the reservation.

The rest of us were quick to join in…; its a lot of fun slapping mud on to the house.  There was no shortage of mudders, because well, it’s so fun!  The whole day there was lots of friendly mud slinging, slapping and hand printing.

Standing inside of the house mudding all day allowed you to feel how efficient it will be…; it is nice and cool!  The windows and door are strategically placed, according to the vision of Henry Red Cloud’s father.  The entire design was passed along to Henry orally and memorized so that it could be rebuilt one day.  That day is upon us.  It us humbling to be here and see the vision unfold.  This house is the seed of a vision that will help people across Indian Country; a prototype for a sustainable housing solution here on the rez.

You can contribute to sustainable housing on tribal lands by clicking here!

Notes from the Field: Let’s stop talking and start doing

By Pete Iengo, TWP Office Manager & Volunteer Coordinator

August 9, 2011: Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

We are on day two of the straw bale house construction.  There has been great progress, thanks to the seemingly endless enthusiasm and energy of the TWP volunteers, Re-Member crew, Northern Cheyenne Reservation trainees, as well as many friends and family of Henry Red Cloud.

Birch Hincks, TWP's Tribal Lands Intern, works hard building a frame for the straw bale house.

This progress is in spite of a daunting thundershower that rolled through at about 10am today.  It looked as though the storm could really hamper our progress.  However, the ominous soaker lasted about 40 minutes, and before I knew it the crew was back to work.  After the storm came a lot of humidity and some searing sunshine.  It was definitely a stark reminder of Mother Nature’s power, the harsh year round conditions here on the reservation, as well as the great power of human will.

This is a very diverse and determined group, and while there are different motivations coursing through the project, there is a common thread that has become clear; let’s stop talking and start doing something to help people improve their lives.

By the end of work today we will have a complete roof, and the door and window frames will be in place.  Also, the foundation will be secured to the straw bale stacks with a simple but effective wood slat and bale string system.  With the structure of the house securely in place we are ready to have a plaster party!  All day participants have been sifting the clay to a fine powder, in preparation of the mixing process.  The clay stucco solution is the glue that will unite the house structurally and is going to be applied tomorrow.  Henry has been jesting about tomorrow’s Plaster Party all day, keeping things light.  In the days following we will add the finishing touches.

Flip through the time-lapse photos below to see a days worth of construction on the new straw bale house.

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You can donate to this project by clicking here!

Notes from the Field: Sustainable Housing Solutions

By Jon Becker, TWP Board President

August 8th, 2011: Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

We arrived yesterday at about 5:30, thought we might be driving through a tornado in the last few miles.  We’re all in one piece.  We were able to go to the local fairgrounds for the final day of the annual Oglala Lakota gathering.  We saw unbelievable costume regalia, dancing, drumming, and song.  We were all moved and honored to be able to experience this.

Today’s action –  the foundation has been completed – earth bags laid up four courses high and tamped down into place.  Roof framing, using recycled plywood I-beams, completed, plywood roof sheathing underway, close to done.  Very interesting and diverse crew.  About a dozen from Re-Member non-profit located across the road that does a variety of service projects.  Re-Member staff

and visitors (from assorted Midwest locations, including a couple bicycling across the country) are here.  About six visitors from Northern Cheyenne reservation, who recently did solar air heater training and installations with Henry, are here, very eager to be helping out.  Two travelers from North Carolina have come.  Seven TWP staff, board, and friends are working, along with Henry’s sons Cyrus and Avery, and a few grandchildren.  Dave Kaplan and Lindsay Herrara of Fort Collins are doing remarkable experimentation and testing to determine the optimum “recipe” for stucco made from local clay which we’ll use to create a weatherproof exterior surface on top of the straw.   You can really feel the space now – a 24′ diameter circle, lots of natural (often local and recycled) materials, and good clean human energy going into it.  Nobody’s gotten hurt!  We’re having fun.  Please don’t rain on us (too hard).

You can help us finish this project by making a donation online! Click here to support sustainable straw bale homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Yellow Hair Family to Receive Solar Air Heater and New Pallet Home

Solar Air Heater
TWP’s Solar Air Heaters, like the one pictured here at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, reduce a family’s monthly utility bill by 20-30% for up to 25 years.

Thanks to TWP’s supporters on Causes.com, we far surpassed our $2,800 fundraising goal to provide solar air heaters to Native American families. To date, we have raised nearly $7,000 from 322 donors!  With these funds we will provide three different Native American families with solar air heating systems, giving them free, clean heat for years and years to come.

Walter and Alison Yellow Hair
Walter and Alison Yellow Hair watch the construction of their new house on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The Yellow Hairs are one of these families.  Right now, our partner organization, Earth Tipi, in partnership with Texas Natural Builders, is constructing Walter and Alison Yellow Hair a new pallet home from reclaimed materials.  This new, sustainable house will provide much better protection from, and insulation against, the harsh South Dakota winters than their current mobile home, which was originally headed for the dump when they inherited it.  With huge holes in its walls, such a poor structure can be deadly in the extreme weather of the Great Plains.  We believe that every family is deserving of dignified and comfortable housing that is properly heated and we are so lucky to have supporters who feel the same way.

Now, Walter and Alison will enjoy a new home and a new source of clean, free heat with a TWP solar air heater.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the fundraiser and helped make a significant improvement in Walter and Alison’s lives!  Your contributions mean so much to the Native American families who are struggling each day to survive. Stay tuned to learn more about the other families who will receive solar heaters.

Interested in contributing to the building of Walter and Alison’s new home? Please click here to learn more about how you can help!

Click here to join the Solar Energy for Lakota Families cause on Facebook and help us spread the word about solar energy for Native American families living on tribal lands.

Help Raise Funds for Straw Bale Homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation

The Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota, has a major housing crisis. It is common place to have Lakota families living in conditions of extreme overcrowding, with 3 to 4 families inhabiting one three-bedroom home. Many of the families have no electricity, telephone, running water, or sewage systems; and many use wood stoves to heat their homes, depleting limited wood resources. The Lakota people are living in third world conditions, right in our own backyard!

Straw bale Home + Solar Heat = Sustainability

In partnership with Henry Red Cloud, Pine Ridge resident and owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises, we are working to bring sustainable housing solutions to reservation communities and we need your help!  We will begin by constructing a straw bale demonstration site at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), complete with solar heating and lighting. This demonstration site will be a place to conduct workshops, share knowledge, and pass on green building skills throughout Indian Country.  This will be the beginning of a long-term project to bring 600 straw bale houses to the Pine Ridge Reservation, providing families with dignified living conditions that every human being deserves.  Please join us in this effort and consider a donation to this important fundraiser.

How can you help? Make a donation, share this with a friend, donate your birthday (click here to learn how), join us for a FREE straw bale home workshop on Pine Ridge.

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Straw Bale Construction Workshop — Aug. 8-12 — FREE

You are invited to a free training and volunteer opportunity to help build a demonstration straw bale home on our partner, Henry Red Cloud’s, property at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

What: Straw bale home construction training and volunteer trip
Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Arrive: Sunday evening/ afternoon, August 7 (you may wish to arrive in time for the Pine Ridge Pow Wow).
Work: Monday-Friday, Aug 8-12
Depart: Saturday, Aug 13
Why: Learn about straw bale construction and help Henry build this demonstration of efficient, affordable housing for Native Americans living on reservations.


  • All are invited to camp on Henry’s property at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Please bring your own camping equipment.


  • In general, you will be responsible for your own transport to/ from Henry’s.
  • For those of you traveling from Fort Collins, CO on Sunday and returning on Saturday, I will be happy to facilitate carpools.


  • Our options for food will depend on the number of volunteers who sign-up.
  • For now, you should assume that you will be responsible for your own food and preparation.
  • TWP is happy to share its kitchen equipment including a stove and shelter. If there are 40 of us, you may be happy you brought your own camp stove…
  • There is a small convenience store about 9 miles from Henry’s.

To Reserve Your Spot:
Please email Lacey Gaechter at lacey@treeswaterpeople.org or call us at (970) 484-3678.

  • Let Lacey know when you plan to arrive/ depart.
  • Where you’ll be coming from.
  • If you’d like a ride or to offer a ride from Fort Collins.
  • Any questions that you have.

We hope you can join us in bringing sustainable housing options to the Lakota People!

Can’t attend but still want to help? Click here to donate to our straw bale fundraiser online!