Montana State University

MSU project to help spin straw into sustainable housing in Kenya

December 15, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


David Fortin, left, architecture professor at MSU, and Michael Spencer, a 2010 MSU architecture graduate, and the potato storage facility they designed and helped build of straw-bale construction on a far in Ex-Lewa, in Kenya's highlands. The structure was then covered with plaster. Fortin and Spencer will take a team of MSU students to the area next summer to build houses of straw bales. They believe straw-bale construction, an update of an age-old technique, has potential to be a sustainable and economical option to help solve the Kenyan housing crisis. Photo courtesy of David Fortin.   High-Res Available

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A recent graduate of the Montana State University School of Architecture and an MSU architecture professor hope to spin straw into a strong and sustainable building material that will help solve a housing crisis a half world away.

This summer David Fortin, a professor of architecture at MSU, Michael Spencer, a 2010 MSU architecture graduate, and a team of MSU students will build six to eight houses made from straw-bales in Ex-Lewa, a farming area of central Kenya.

The summer service-learning project is the result of nearly three years of work by Fortin and Spencer, who have been researching design solutions to help solve a housing shortage in the east African country. Spencer, now principal of the design firm Studio [Re], Inc., has been commuting regularly between Bozeman and Kenya, where he has designed and managed the building of a potato-storage facility and four teachers' homes in an agricultural community in highlands of Kenya, near Nanyuki.

"Straw-bale construction in Kenya is sustainable and makes economic and sociologic sense," Spencer said. "There is already a long waiting list of people (in Kenya) interested in straw-bale structures."

The straw-bale buildings that Spencer and MSU are involved with are some of the first in Kenya. The bales are stacked, reinforced with recycled material and then coated with plaster, like icing on a cake. The resulting buildings are strong, warm in the highland climate (Spencer explains that Kenya, a country of 40 million people. has the geological and climatic diversity of Florida to Montana), and much less expensive than traditional Kenyan buildings in the area, which are made of stone, Spencer said. In addition, he said, the straw-bale construction process takes less than half the time required by conventional buildings.

For example, the 30-by-15 foot storage building that Spencer helped build last summer that holds 20 tons of potatoes cost about $2,000, or a quarter less than what it would cost if it had been built of traditional stone or wood-frame construction. It has stood up well to the Kenya rainy season, he said.

Spencer points out that in Kenya, where there are two to three cuttings of wheat each year, there is an abundance of straw, which Kenyans usually burn or feed to cattle during drought years. In contrast, there is a scarcity of conventional building materials, such as timber and concrete.

"Straw-bale construction represents a shift in building materials in Kenya," he said. The straw bales that Spencer used were generated from farms in the area where the buildings were built.

Spencer and Fortin hope that the technique that they are introducing in rural Kenya one day will help solve an acute housing crisis in the urban centers of Kenya. That is where their link with the country began.

In 2009, Fortin, Spencer and Erin Chamberlin, also now an architecture grad, traveled to Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, at the invitation of Ronald Omyonga. Omyonga is a Kenyan architect who was also the inspiration for MSU's award-winning Engineers Without Borders project in which MSU students have helped install water wells in Omyonga's home district of Khwisero. Kibera, which has an estimated population of more than a million residents, is one of the largest slums in the world. Kenyan officials recently estimated that there was a shortage of two million housing units, primarily in the country's urban areas, affecting both the poor and middle class.

While Spencer and Fortin researched design solutions for Kibera, they began looking at straw, which exists in abundance in Kenya, as an affordable, sustainable building material. Spencer contacted Bozeman-based Red Feather Development Group, which has been building straw-bale homes on American Indian reservations for 16 years, to learn about their modern adaptations to the age-old technique.

Last summer Spencer spent several weeks in Lame Deer learning first-hand about straw-bale technique. Then, he and Fortin, whose visit was supported by an MSU faculty development grant, traveled to Kenya to design and build the potato storage facility. The concept was so successful that Spencer is now working in partnership with Wheat Foundation International to establish a Kenyan-based design-build construction company capable of taking on larger scale housing and agricultural infrastructure projects.

Spencer recently returned from Kenya where he designed and built a shared housing complex that houses teachers for the Gunda Secondary School.

"I could work full-time for the next two years just on building straw-bale houses in Kenya for current clients who want houses like this," said Spencer, who plans to return to Kenya in March.

When Fortin returns to Kisima this summer to rejoin Spencer, he will take a team of four or five students through the School of Architecture and MSU Office of International Program's summer study program.

The six-week service-learning trip will cost about $5,000 (plus airfare) and include room and board and six MSU credits. It will include one week in Nairobi, four weeks in Kisima building houses and another week at a Red Feather project on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Students will study the social, economic, cultural and political factors involved in the production and supply of housing in developing countries as well as receive hands-on experience helping to build straw-bale houses for the nursing staff at the Gunda Foundation Health Center in Ex-Lewa, Kenya. Students have until Jan. 30 to apply. The trip is open to all students, Fortin said. For more information, see http://www.montana.edu/international/studyabroad/summer_programs/Kenya.htm.

Spencer said that the trip will be an opportunity for the students to help change lives, but their lives will, in turn, never be the same after the experience.

"No doubt about it, it will be life-changing," Spencer said. "And, these students will have a chance to truly be a part of a (housing) revolution."

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David Fortin (406) 994-7579, david.fortin@montana.edu