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Building Green, for Less Green

IN CONSTRUCTION, affordable and green are often contradictory terms. What makes for an environmentally conscious building––such as the use of natural building materials or systems to generate alternative forms of energy––often also makes for an expensive one, leaving sustainable design a choice only a few can afford.

A team of UW-Madison faculty, students and community organizations, however, is out to construct a new reality: green housing that doesn’t require as much up-front expense. Sue Thering, a CALS assistant professor of landscape architecture and a community development specialist for UW-Extension, is coordinating a partnership with several of Wisconsin’s Native American communities to create affordable, energy efficient housing on tribal lands throughout the state. Supported by a three-year grant from the Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Foundation, the project included a for-credit outreach program this summer, which trained 20 participants in green community design techniques and culminated in the construction of two model homes in the St. Croix Ojibwa community near Hertel, Wis. Plans are to construct affordable housing in other tribal communities during the next three years.

“There are green technologies that already go into very high-end housing,” says Thering. “We have assembled a team of national experts who have dedicated themselves to this project, and through good design, research and testing, they have made these technologies work on a more modest scale.”

Thering notes that builders in the Southwest are using a mixture of straw and clay to construct “green” walls in expensive homes. Participants in the summer program, including UW-Madison students and tribal housing officials, spent a week in Santa Fe, N.M., learning how to work with the straw-clay compound, which can be adapted for Midwestern temperatures to create highly energy efficient structures.

By mastering such techniques, Thering says participants can open the door to jobs and business opportunities. “Builders tell us that there is pent-up demand for these technologies, but a shortage of people who are trained to work with them,” she says. “We’re responding to the market.”