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Martha Bear Quiver House
Busby, Montana, 2001

Martha Bear Quiver had been working to get a home of her own for twenty years when she finally secured a USDA rural development mortgage. She and her four kids had spent most of the previous two decades living in various low-rent houses on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Eastern Montana, adjacent to the Crow Reservation. Over the years she’d lived in trailers, manufactured homes, and HUD stick frame houses—by the time she got her loan she knew a lot about what kind of home she didn’t want. She didn’t want the simple, boring box-shaped houses that most Northern Cheyenne Indians live in today. She set about searching for something unique.

Herman Bear Comes Out, a local activist at the Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority, suggested she might be a candidate for a straw bale home. Martha visited Peggy White next door on the Crow Reservation and fell in love with her house.

Martha’s house was AIHI’s third demonstration home project. It is a single story, four-bedroom house, designed by AIHI partners and the Bear Quiver family. It sits on a bucolic site on land that had been passed down through Martha’s family for several generations to she and her brothers. The plot that was specifically left to Martha lay too low on the water table to be built upon, so her brother gave her a lovely five-acre parcel at a bend in an adjacent creek. The site faces an agricultural field and is nestled into a nook created by trees along the creek bed so that it feels sheltered from the harsh climate.

The initial design guidelines for the house were the result of prototype design work done by students in the two earlier AIHI studios. Refinements to the design details and floor plan were incorporated, so that we were again improving upon the prototype. In addition, since Martha had acquired her own financing for this project, she played the role of a more traditional client. She had very specific requirements for the house. She has a large family (both in numbers and physical size—three of her sons are high school wrestlers) so she wanted four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a larger living and dining area than the previous clients. The house is our largest straw bale building to date.

Students and instructors both understood that a house this size would be a challenge for straw bale construction. Keeping the house a single-story meant that the overall footprint would be very large. Students brought all the social spaces into the center around the utility core and created a kind of continuous open plan between the kitchen, dining room, and living room, all connected through a foyer to the entrance. These central social spaces are flanked by two bedrooms and one bathroom on either side.

The only way to make the floor plan work without building a two-story house was to increase the allowable roof span of straw bale buildings. Using our tested wall-bearing system in which the roof trusses sit right on the straw walls, we started to design a building type where the walls now stretch the structural limits to thirty-four feet, the largest span in a straw bale building that we know of. The walls that carry the load have fewer openings so that they’ll be stronger, and there are several buttresses along these bearing walls that stiffen it against lateral load.

Students, volunteers, and Martha and her family were able to finish the house in two weeks, but not without a struggle. The central social and utility cores of the house made the extensive use of wood-framed interior walls necessary. This, along with the inclusion of two bathrooms, created significant problems for the volunteer labor force (something that had been avoided by the previous year’s separation of the core). As a result, students are investigating the use of a prefabricated modular core for the next prototype home, which would allow an unskilled force to build shell structure around a factory-finished kitchen, bath, and laundry core.

Often on the reservation houses appear uncared for, as if the people who live in them don’t mind if they decay. This trend could be, in part, the result of the federal government’s strange housing policies; they provide lots of houses to the largely low-income tribal members who qualify, but most of these are off-the-shelf manufactured houses, unsuitable for the climate and the cultural traditions of their inhabitants. Martha Bear Quiver’s house, by contrast, is one of the most meticulously cared for homes found on the reservation, likely because she determined its funding, design, and construction. Her role in the design and build of this house has made it a personal treasure.

The pride it brings has given Martha the inspiration to change her life in other ways. She has formed a partnership with female coworkers at the local IGA supermarket and they are currently working to purchase the store in which they work. The twenty-year wait for this house has culminated in a sense of ownership and empowerment that Martha is using to improve all aspects of her life.