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CROW AGENCY — Aaron and Martha Alden stood in the kitchen of their new home on Wednesday morning, happy to be there.

Light poured through the south-facing windows into the open, high-ceilinged room that contains the kitchen, dining and sitting areas. A doorway off the main area leads to two bedrooms and a bathroom.

The couple, both enrolled members of the Crow Tribe, moved into the 900-square-foot house on Oct. 13. The blue-and-black house sits on a hillside on the west side of Crow Agency.

“It feels great, and we were fortunate to have a home made by our own people with our own minerals,” Martha said. “I’d like to thank God, our creator, and the people who helped build this house.”

The energy-efficient home with a sloping roof is the first one completed in the Good Earth Lodges program. The compressed-earth blocks are made from sand and clay mined on the Crow Reservation.

The blocks are produced in a factory on the reservation, one mile south of Hardin, and the home was built by a Crow work crew.

With about 8,000 people living on the Crow Reservation and a pent-up demand for 1,500 new housing units, according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs survey, every new house is good news for the tribe.

A lack of single-family dwellings drives some families off the reservation. Others, said Larry Falls Down, project manager for Good Earth Lodges, move in wherever they can.

“We have invisible homelessness,” Falls Down said. “Nobody will tell you they’re homeless, because they’re able to live with their aunt or their uncle or other family members. And so we have a huge overcrowding problem.”

The Aldens have gone both routes. Most recently, they resided with Martha’s parents in Crow Agency. Before that, they lived in a trailer home in Hardin.

This is the first house the couple has owned.

“It feels good,” Aaron said. “We’ve been trying to have a home of our own. We’ve been married 23 years.”

The compressed-earth-block house is one of five built through the Good Earth Lodges project with stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Falls Down said. Seven modular homes also were built with that money.

The houses are located in different communities on the reservation, and homeowners had to complete an application process to qualify for them.

Falls Down is employed by the Apsaalooke Nation Housing Authority, whose work is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, his title is home ownership coordinator with the down-payment-assistance program.

But he also oversees the work of the Good Earth Lodges, which is under the purview of the tribe. That program kicked off in 2010, using local materials and a homegrown workforce to build desperately needed homes.

The tribe worked closely with the University of Colorado Boulder to develop the right formula for the blocks to withstand Montana’s climate. Extensive testing led to a combination of clay and sand, found on the reservation, and Portland cement to stabilize the blocks.

Falls Down keeps one of the blocks in a bucket of water to prove its durability. The bucket has been inside the project’s office/model home in Crow Agency for more than two years.

“One of the things people said was that our blocks were going to fall apart if they got moist,” Falls Down said. “So this has been in there since March 2010, and it’s still a solid block.”

Each compressed earth block weighs 28 pounds. The walls of the houses are built with two rows of the 7-inch blocks, with a 4-inch space in between filled with insulation.

The houses have a passive solar design, Falls Down said, and all the houses are built facing south, with that wall containing a trio of sliding-glass doors and high windows.

“You’ll notice there are no windows on the east side of the house, which is the hottest part of the home,” Falls Down said. “We would rather utilize the heat on the southern-facing wall during the winter and then block that sun during the summer months.”

The vaulted ceilings serve two purposes, he said, for enough space on the south wall for the windows and for high ceilings to make the main room feel larger.

The houses also have ground-source heat pumps that distribute heat to the houses in an energy efficient way.

The floor plans range from two bedrooms with 900 livable square feet to three bedrooms with 1,150 square feet; three bedrooms and two baths with 1,350 square feet; and four bedrooms with 1,500 livable square feet.

The first three floor plans fall under guidelines for federally funded homes, and the fourth is available to tribal members who secure mortgages and contract with Good Earth Lodges to build their homes.

The 12 houses built with the ARRA funding will be completed by Nov. 30, Falls Down said. But work has also begun on another five to seven homes that Good Earth Lodges is building for the housing authority.

Those houses will be added to the collection of about 500 low-income rentals overseen by the housing authority. A long waiting list means these houses will be rented as soon as they are complete.

Besides offering renters a new home to live in, Falls Down said, the energy-efficient abodes will reduce living expenses for the tenants.

“Tenants pay outrageous energy bills, both because of our climate and the modulars or older built homes didn’t take into consideration high energy costs,” he said. “So our design is focused on helping the tenant live in a home with lower costs.”

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The houses will be constructed in a new subdivision on top of the hill in west Crow Agency. Michael Stewart, construction manager for the Apsaalooke Nation Housing Authority, did much of the work to develop the subdivision, a process that took three or four years.

“We needed some land to develop more housing, and then we started to identify tribal property throughout the reservation based on factors like water and sewer and infrastructure,” Stewart said.

Ultimately, 188 acres on the hill best met the criteria for access, infrastructure, environmental and flood plain issues. Crow tribal leaders OK’d the idea, with final approval coming from the Crow Legislature.

The infrastructure will be developed in small segments for 20 lots at a time in what Stewart called “a multiphase, multiyear process.” The tribe’s Transportation Department won the bid to do all of the dirt work and install the sewer and water infrastructure in the first phase.

Three modular homes sit nearly completed in the tract, built with stimulus money. And Falls Down’s crew of 14 to 22 workers is starting work on the compressed-earth-block homes.

As the housing authority secures additional HUD grant money, more rental houses will be built there, Stewart said.

“We’ve been talking about this for years and I thought it wasn’t going to happen,” Stewart said. “It’s good to see progress, but still it’s overwhelming not to meet the needs of everybody.”

To help Crow tribal members buy houses, the housing authority in late 2004 adopted a down-payment-assistance policy that has already helped about 120 people purchase homes, Falls Down said. Some are on the reservations and others are farther away, in Hardin, Billings and even Missoula.

Tribal members who complete a class and qualify for a mortgage get 5 percent or up to $10,000 in down-payment-assistance funds. The hope is now that compressed-earth-block houses are available, people will see the finished products and want one of their own.

The federal Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development is working with two other tribes on using compressed earth blocks to build homes, Falls Down said. The Crow Tribe would like to assist tribes who want to duplicate their success, he said.

“That’s really the focus of our chairman, that we would be able to spread this to other tribes,” Falls Down said.

Aaron and Martha Alden are glad to let others come and see their new home. Aaron, who works in maintenance for the housing authority, and Martha, who is a housewife, share their home with their daughter Tanisha and her fiancé, Jonathan Grant.

After all this time, they are pleased to have a home to call their own.

“I’m just really happy,” Martha said. “I’m really just grateful.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.