In 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama declared “Yes We Can.” I, along with millions of other Americans, was inspired by this approach to politics. I understood this message to be a partnership request. I had a role to play. And so I founded Community Rebuilds to address an affordable housing need in my rural community with the larger goal of shifting the existing construction paradigm to have a lighter impact. Community Rebuilds’ mission is to build energy-efficient housing, provide education on sustainability, and improve the housing conditions of the workforce through an affordable program.
It began as a simple idea to replace old, dilapidated housing (like singlewide trailers built prior to 1976) with homes that cost less to build and less to heat and cool for working families. The premise is to use volunteers to offset the cost of construction, utilize federal financing to offer participants a low interest rate and a reasonable payment plan, and build with sustainable materials that are dirt-cheap…literally build affordable, energy-efficient homes out of straw, sand, clay, and wood.
I was excited to get building, but I ran into an immediate problem. The green building industry was suffering from a lack of green builders. I stumbled onto a unique opportunity to stack functions and dovetail two needs with one program.
When I reached out for financing to build these homes, the recently appointed USDA Rural Development State Director of Utah, Dave Conine, was there to take my hand. He connected me to two programs: the 502 Direct Loan Program, which helps low-income families purchase homes in rural communities, and the Rural Business Enterprise Grant, which is providing my organization supplementary funding for technical assistance and instructor pay to teach this type of alternative construction.
Community Rebuilds is a mechanism to change not only what is built but also how it is built. We’re mentoring students on the jobsite, working within the industry, and producing a radically new product. If we want to build homes that are more energy-efficient and affordable, we need to train people how to build them from foundation to finish. We are honored to receive the title Champion of Change, and we look forward to continuing to shift the construction industry paradigm.
Emily S. Niehaus is the Founder and Executive Director of Community Rebuilds, a nonprofit whose mission is to build energy-efficient housing, provide education on sustainability, and improve the housing conditions of the workforce through an affordable program.