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Highlighting HUD's Best Practices Manual for Using Compressed Earth Blocks, An Interview with Michael Blanford

A Best Practices Manual for Using Compressed Earth Blocks in Sustainable Home Construction in Indian Country

In this column, Michael Blanford, a research engineer in HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, discusses the development of the HUD publication, A Best Practices Manual for Using Compressed Earth Blocks in Sustainable Home Construction in Indian Country, and explains how it can benefit tribes.

1. What was the impetus for developing a set of best practices for using compressed earth blocks?

A researcher with the University of Colorado submitted a grant application to develop best practices for using compressed earth blocks. HUD was already looking for projects related to Indian Country, and this one seemed like a very good project. Compressed earth block is a technique that Native Americans have used for a really long time. We wanted to try to modernize the technique. The use of compressed earth blocks benefits the tribe because it is an easily learned technique, and the tribe is able to quickly train their own tribal members to do the work. So, not only is it a way for tribes to build new housing, but it’s also an economic development opportunity.

I’ll explain what I mean by this method of building construction serving as an economic development opportunity. If tribal members are trained in the technique of creating and building homes with compressed earth block, then these members can be employed on construction projects when the tribes receive federal funds to build new housing. This arrangement allows the federal funds to stay within the tribe, as the employed tribal members may use their paychecks to pay for other goods within the community. It’s really a win-win situation and a way for tribes to embrace a traditional building method, which is why we created the guide. It is important to note that the use of compressed earth blocks is appropriate only in specific climate conditions; but in areas with the right climate, plenty of tribes could benefit from using compressed earth blocks and consulting this manual.

2. What are compressed earth blocks, and how are they made?

Basically, the blocks are a mud mixture that workers compress together. There are some mechanical aids that can be purchased to help make the blocks the same size and shape. You want them to be as uniform as possible.

3. Do we know how far back the use of compressed earth blocks — or the equivalent of compressed earth blocks — goes?

I believe this technique can be traced back thousands of years.

4. What are the advantages of compressed earth blocks over other building materials?

As with any building product, there are advantages and drawbacks. I don’t think that this technique necessarily has any great advantage compared to a stick frame construction house. The primary advantage is that the technique is easy to learn and utilize, and the blocks are made of low-cost materials.

5. Is there any particular way that this is encouraged in that community?

HUD is not seeking to encourage the use of these blocks; HUD wants tribes to build housing that they choose. Before Congress passed the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA), HUD built housing on tribal land. After NAHASDA, the authority for decisions about housing was returned to the tribes. So now the tribes are responsible for building their housing. I think that NAHASDA has been really successful in helping tribes to embrace the opportunity to build their own housing, whether that housing uses traditional methods like this or more contemporary building methods. The important thing is that the tribes are comfortable with the housing they are building.