- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) - For many college students, summer break is a time for road trips, adventure, debauchery, reconnecting with the hometown folks, etc. The past two summers have been a bit different for 22-year-old Spearfish native Taylor Klinkel, who just graduated from Montana State University with a bachelor’s degree in environmental arts and design. She spent six weeks last summer building straw bale houses in Kenya and 10 days at the end of May checking up on the structures.

Klinkel didn’t know what she wanted to study in college but ended up at MSU in Bozeman, Montana, studying architecture, an idea she got from her sister. Klinkel was intrigued in the late spring of 2013 by a summer program the school offered designing and building straw bale houses in Kenya. It was the first time the school offered the program. She signed up and became one of the four students and two professors who made up the test group that summer.

“How it started was one of the students graduated, went on safari, met all these people and thought they could build straw bale houses there,” Klinkel told the Black Hills Pioneer (http://bit.ly/TOau6j ). “He talked to one of the teachers about it and that’s how the program got started. And he still lives there.”

The program started with a stateside brush up on straw bale house construction with the help of the Red Feather Development Group, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that works with Native American tribes. Red Feather led the Kenya-bound group in the weeklong construction of a straw bale house on Montana’s Northern Cheyenne reservation. After that, it was off to Kenya.

Klinkel was a bit nervous about the trip. She’d never been overseas before. And, of course, there was immediate culture shock. There was also that one time a baboon chased her on a safari trip, but that’s another story altogether.

The MSU group was based on a large farm called Kisima - “spring” in Swahili - that Klinkel said produces most of the wheat in East Africa. Since straw is a byproduct of wheat, there was a big opportunity there, not to just build straw bale houses for people, but to show them how to do it themselves.

“You essentially have this leftover crop that’s not being used,” Klinkel said. “There’s a big housing crisis in the slums and cities. The hope would be that people could get straw easily and build their own homes.”

Klinkel and her straw bale comrades built several structures in Kenya with the help of a local construction group, including staff housing for the farm’s health clinic, and a new home for one of the construction workers whose house burnt down in a nearby community that summer. Each structure took about a week to build, and was about 22x48 feet.

The process (loose description): pour a limestone foundation, stack straw bales, brace structure, add wooden beams for support and a roof structure, add corrugated steel roof, set windows.

“They traditionally build with stone there, but they really like the straw bale because it’s really warm. They’re always cold. It’s like 75 degrees there, and I think it’s like summer, and I’m running around in shorts, and they’ve got coats on,” Klinkel said, pointing out that while Kisima is located very near the equator, the 8,000-foot elevation cools things down a bit, especially at night.

“The locals were a little shocked that girls were building. They thought that was a little bit strange. People would drive by and stop and ask, ‘what are you guys doing?’ Then we showed them we could pull our own weight,” Klinkel said. “I think it was good for them because they could see the whole process happening. It happens pretty quickly.

“I liked it. I like being able to draw it and then actually build it and figure out the details for it. Stuff like that I really enjoy,” Klinkel added. “Normally in school you’re just drawing it, but to actually build it and figure out the details and connections and stuff is really fun.”

Kisima is about a three-hour drive from Nairobi, Kenya’s largest city. And in Nairobi lies the Kibera slums, one of the worst in Africa. Klinkel and her group took a day trip to Nairobi and visited Kibera in the middle of their six-week trip. What Klinkel saw there changed her life and brought a sense of human connection and urgency to the project she and her associates were working on.

“Kibera’s crazy, it’s like a sea of slums, and then you can see these fancy golf courses right next to that, and you can see all the fancy homes on the hillside. You see pictures on TV, you go, ‘oh, that’s not good,’ but to actually be there and smell the smells, and hear the sounds. It put real people in the situation. It definitely gave us a bit more drive when we came back (to Kisima),” Klinkel said. “They have to pay rent to live in a slum. They pay rent, they pay for the water that’s not clean, they pay to go to the bathroom. It’s expensive just to be there. The financial system is what we think is messing people up, because they can’t get loans to get their own house, so they’re stuck in the slums. A lot of the college graduates are in the slums because they can’t afford a house. We’re trying figure out how to make housing really affordable, cheap, and efficient. It’s really exciting.”

One of the things that really stood out to Klinkel from the visit to Kibera was the attitude of the people living in that squalor.

“They’re all just so happy, and they have so little,” she said. “It really makes you appreciate the things that you have, and your friends and your family - that’s really what’s important to them.”

In June, Klinkel traveled back to Kisima to check on the houses she and the group built. The houses held up well over a year, with only three cracks appearing in the plaster of one of the structures. Other than that, she said, the people working and living on the farm loved their straw bale houses.

Klinkel said her experiences in Kenya changed her life. She’s now looking at grad school programs and dreaming of a career in the design-build field.

“Now I’m all about nonprofits, and doing sustainable, low-income housing,” she said. “Before, that wasn’t even on my radar.”

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Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com

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