Building For The Future With An Eye To The Past

UW Professor, Local Architect Assisting State Tribes with Housing Plans that Combine Sustainability with Family Customs

Capital TImes header

By Anita Weir
Appeared in The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, September 3, 2008.

Imagine a house where an extended family could live comfortably - grandmother, parents, children and maybe an uncle or aunt. And try making that house "green" - one that would not harm the environment or waste energy.

Wisconsin's First Nations are taking the lead in developing such houses for their members - with a lot of help from the University-Wisconsin Madison and a local architect.

The idea emerged from Assistant Professor Sue Thering's work with several Native American tribal groups that wanted affordable, energy-efficient houses.

At first, the plan was to provide housing that was simply green and affordable. But while working with the St. Croix Ojibwa, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Superior Ojibwa and the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwa to develop the plans, she learned that they also wanted housing where extended families could live together.

"Traditionally, Native American families have more than one generation living together. Others call it over-crowding but we call it helping out our families," explained Duane Emery, director of community development and housing for the St. Croix Ojibwa of Wisconsin.

"We want to push green codes or green principles in our design," he added. "As Native Americans, we need to do this."

The new project has its origins in an earlier partnership that Thering fostered between the tribes and Madison-based Design Coalition, which has earned national awards for green and affordable projects. Lou Host-Jablonski of Design Coalition and others began teaching green building techniques to builders in northern Wisconsin who will use them for new housing.

"We are training the three tribes - St. Croix, Lac Courte Oreilles and Sokaogon - in how to use the materials. They end up with two houses on the St. Croix land that they can refer back to and a group of local professionals who know how to build. We are training the trainers," explained Thering, who works in UW-Madison's Landscape Architecture Department and in community development for UW-Extension.

Construction on two 1,400-square-foot houses on the St. Croix reservation near Hertel, Wis., is expected to be completed this fall using a combination of tribal casino revenues and grant money secured by the UW. Training on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation near Hayward and construction of a model house is scheduled for next spring.

A site design and master plan also has been done with the Mole Lake tribe.

Betty's House

What will make the next phase of the partnership highly unusual and "rather historic," Thering said, is its emphasis on multi-generational housing.

"It would be incredibly green: instead of five tiny houses there would be one large house with less impact on the environment," she said.

Thering obtained a $116,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program, and Host-Jablonski has produced technical drawings for multi-generational homes after meeting with a steering committee from the three tribes to find out what they wanted.

Existing government-issued housing is simply not adequate for the way the people have chosen to live, Host-Jablonski said. "A standard floor plan does not work. There are not enough bedrooms and the kitchen, dining room and living room are not large enough."

He added that "in an extended family situation, the kitchen is always the center. You may have two to four adults in a kitchen preparing meals and the kids associated with those adults doing homework or needing to be nearby. The dining room needs to handle 12 to 20 people in an extended family situation, including guests. They need not only a bigger room but a bigger table and more chairs."

Six to eight bedrooms are needed, he said, as well as facilities that meet the needs of different age groups. For instance, a home office, a workshop or craft area and a children's space such as a combination nursery-playroom-recreation room become requirements.

The dream house the three tribes envisioned was not an apartment building but a home. The two concept plans include one house of about 3,000 square feet in addition to a partially finished basement. The smaller home would be about 2,000 square feet plus a partially finished basement. The actual houses may differ somewhat from the plans, depending on the soil and slope and street location.

Green Generation House

"That is actually cheaper, instead of two or three buildings on separate lots with water and sewer for this number of people. It is cheaper to build and heat and cool and light it. There is less exterior surface area," Host-Jablonski pointed out.

The hope is to finish planning this year and to start construction of one or more homes next spring. Locations have not been determined.

In many ways, the goals of energy efficiency and cultural appropriateness dovetailed.

The energy-efficient homes would use 100 percent recycled roofing with recycled cellulose insulation, and interior materials would be durable and low-toxin, with as much recycled and reused products as possible. The windows would be high quality for energy efficiency.

"The prototype is a wigwam, built of saplings covered with reed mats, barks or skins, depending on the season," Host-Jablonski said. "The entry originally faced east. A version we found in the Lac Courte Oreilles was double wall construction, with an inner and outer layer and sphagnum moss in between for insulation.

"There was an earthen floor over stones, and a fire pit set below the level of the floor into a stone-lined pit. Combustion air was fed by a tube of birch bark sat in the ground, so there was a heat exchange system in a natural building. I thought I was smart as an architect to come up with ideas, only to discover the basic elements in their culture 150 years ago.

"Another culturally appropriate thing we tried to incorporate is having a circular or octagonal quality in living spaces. The building is not round - which is somewhat antithetical to solar - but we try to give the main living space a circular quality or focus, with angled walls and the way stairs and outer walls shape it. Round or oblong-shaped rooms, like the wigwams, meant that a small clan could sit equal, with no front or back hierarchy."

The cooperative effort between the northern tribes and the UW that has led to the push for multi-generational housing began in 2002, when the tribal planning office for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwa approached Thering's Department of Landscape Architecture for assistance.

"They wanted to develop a 200-acre parcel of land to build some housing, but were very concerned about protecting their natural and cultural resources," Thering recalled. "We did a participatory community planning process with the tribe. We worked with them and brought in our professional faculty and some students."

The UW helped figure out where to put the road and the tribe applied for development grants to get the roads built.

"Then I asked to see what kind of houses they were building. I wanted to make sure they knew technical assistance was available to them. Most of it was pre-manufactured homes and the energy efficiency was pretty low. I thought we could do better and asked if they wanted me to look around for something efficient, healthy, sustainable and green," Thering said.

Other tribes heard about it and the UW was asked to provide land use technical assistance for them. Thering also discovered the nonprofit Design Coalition, which had earned national awards for green and affordable projects.

"I talked them into partnering with us on a tech-transfer jobs training project in response to some of the requests we had from the tribes. Talented, experienced builders and artisans work within the tribes and want to learn about green construction and materials. So it was skill enhancement," she said.

Thering and tribal members have high hopes about the potential benefits of the new housing.

Thering said it would be one way of dealing with waiting lists for housing on several reservations. About 1,200 people live on the St. Croix reservation near Hertel, and there is a waiting list for housing, in part because people want to come back to the reservation, said the St. Croix Ojibwa's Emery. Some of them want to return to be near their families, Thering added.

Emery is also hoping that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sometimes subsidizes housing on the reservation, will provide matching funds to build multi-generational homes.

The effort to train builders in new techniques may also pay greater dividends.

A training program at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College is teaching green building practices, and the UW-Madison, Design Coalition and Kelly Design Group are joining with the tribal college for its construction and training program. The college has a carpentry program and an institute for sustainable living, and faculty members participated in the building of the model houses at Hertel.

Steve Kozak, renewable energy instructor at the tribal college, said his Energy Efficiency and Green Building Practices course and a carpentry class that builds houses will benefit from what the instructors learned at the St. Croix building site.

One technique in particular that the builders are using is the use of a mixture of native straw and clay to make 12-inch thick walls that provide excellent insulation.

work site

Enterprise Community Partners, a national organization, gave $25,000 for the training project with the St. Croix, but has also asked Thering for a proposal to expand the train and build idea through the upper Midwest by working with tribal colleges.

And Thering has started to think about expanding the concept of the green affordable housing initiative beyond Indian Country. In a time of mortgage defaults, steep fuel costs and job losses, a training program for unemployed or underemployed workers that results in environmentally sound, energy-efficient affordable housing might be a good idea statewide, she said, comparing the idea with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

Top of page

Back to Articles

Back to Green Generation House