Langello and two-dozen other residents of a Powerhouse Lane trailer park had just received more grim news about the fate of their homes, following a long-running dispute with a neighboring property owner.
Although Langello knew all about the dispute before he bought his trailer, he was still in shock when he learned that he and his neighbors would have to leave the neighborhood, according to Niehaus.
“He was super-upset,” she said. “He didn’t know where he was going to put his trailer, or what he was going to do.”
Niehaus asked him if there was any sort of program in the community that could help the soon-to-be displaced residents of Powerhouse Lane.
“[He] told me there wasn’t one,” she said.
The conversation sparked an idea in Niehaus’ mind.
She had been working as a loan officer for a local credit union, but her thoughts increasingly turned to the idea of building straw bale homes for families who were living in decades-old trailers.
Niehaus went on to form Community Rebuilds, a nonprofit group that helps qualifying-income families build affordable and energy-efficient straw bale homes.
Her vision quickly took off: in the years since that fateful conversation with Langello, Community Rebuilds, its volunteers, student interns and participating families have built seven new homes in the area.
This month, the group is putting the final touches on its eighth home, and this one has a special meaning for all involved: It’s located in a new subdivision in the Powerhouse Lane neighborhood, and Langello will soon be moving into it.
“Here I am in my own backyard,” Langello said. “It’s come full circle. It’s like a homecoming.”
As a rule, Community Rebuilds has been focused on building new homes to replace aging trailers.
“It’s very unique for us to be building in a new subdivision,” Niehaus said. “But Steve’s case was compelling enough because he’s actually recycling the trailer that he moved from the park.”
In fact, many items, ranging from the trailer’s old kitchen sink to faucets and light fixtures have been incorporated into the new building. Other materials are recycled whenever it’s possible to reuse them, Niehaus said.
“Most construction sites have a big beige dumpster,” Niehaus said. “We have a recycling center.”
Like other Community Rebuilds projects, Langello’s home has been designed with sustainability in mind.
Passive-solar construction, recycled newspaper insulation and thick straw bale walls will keep the home cooler during the summer months and warmer during the winter months, thereby reducing Langello’s utility bills.
Natural light from a “sun tube” shines down into the bathroom during daylight hours, and flexible tubes underneath the home’s adobe floors will provide radiant heating.
Solar water heaters and photovoltaic solar panels are about the only features that are missing from the home, but Langello will have the opportunity to add them on his own dime.
Niehaus is especially proud of the home’s kitchen countertops, which were built by former Community Rebuilds intern Kate Heath.
The former Wisconsin resident first came to Moab with an educational background in sociology, but she had no idea what she wanted to do after she graduated from college in Vermont.
“I landed here on a whim, and I just fell in love with natural building in this area,” Heath said. “It just sounded like an exciting opportunity and a fun place to be.”
She couldn’t have known it at the time, but the internship ultimately led to a full-time job with local green building contractor Eco Logic Design Build.
“I formed a pretty strong work connection with Eric Plourde,” Heath said. “I think I’m going to [stay in Moab].”
While Niehaus depends on student interns like Heath to help keep construction costs down, she also relies on local donors. Most recently, Wells Fargo Bank came forward with a $15,000 contribution.
“There have been so many organizations that have given to us over the years, but that definitely is one of the biggest,” Niehaus said.
She’s also grateful for ongoing support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office.
“Without that program, this wouldn’t exist,” she said.
The fact that Community Rebuilds does exist comes as a pleasant surprise to many.
“It’s kind of funny. So many people in the community are coming out now to say to me, ‘We never thought that this idea would work,’” she said.
To learn more about Community Rebuilds, go to: www.communityrebuilds.org/, or visit its blog at: http://communityrebuilds.wordpress.com/.