On Building

Kelly Lerner: Happily on the Fringes:
Part 7 in the Outsiders Series

This article appeared in the August 2008 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Worldwide, the race is on for architects to design flashy structures that have everything to do with fame and ego. How refreshing, then, that architect Kelly Lerner of Spokane, WA, doesn’t care about glitz, glamour or being different for the sake of being different, though she has designed hundreds of structures internationally.

Kelly Lerner, 2007.

She feels that she’s completely on the fringes of her profession, not because her buildings look unusual, but, rather, because she has such deep environmental beliefs that she can’t relate to most architects. Natural Home magazine named her one of the top 10 eco-architects in the United States.

But Lerner, 43, stands out in her field for reasons beyond her ecological commitment. For starters, she has held her own in the male-dominated world of building, where people tend to dismiss women, she says.

What’s more, she’s responsible for constructing more straw bale buildings than probably anyone in the world. She has done so largely in Mongolia and China.

Mongolia and China! That’s quite a departure for an Indiana native. Happily aware that this work makes her an oddity, Lerner laughs and says, “I enjoy being the person who has run all over Mongolia doing weird stuff. That has really made my career.”

After allowing herself that split second of reveling, she quickly shifts back to grounded, practical details about the advantages of straw bale, particularly in Mongolia.

In China, homeowners and trained construction crews worked together to build straw bale walls between brick structural columns.

Wintertime temperatures there often plunge to -40°, says Lerner. Would that be Fahrenheit or Centigrade? She laughs: “Actually, that’s where they meet!”

Nevertheless, Mongolian buildings had no insulation because Soviet builders didn’t insulate, she says. The Soviets controlled the region until Mongolians staged a peaceful revolution in 1990.

Before the insurrection, most energy in Mongolia had come from the Soviets. Afterward, schools and social service agencies began spending three-quarters of their budgets just on heating. Social services went undelivered, and Mongolia fell into complete disarray.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a nongovernmental organization, headed to Mongolia to provide relief assistance. ADRA Country Director Scott Christiansen soon realized that straw bale construction could be a great solution. He contacted Lerner, then working with Daniel Smith and Associates Architects in Berkeley, and she got right on board with Christiansen’s vision.

As Lerner explains, straw bale meets many needs in a place like Mongolia. This natural waste product is fire-resistant and highly insulative but relatively cheap. By providing insulation, one can improve people’s quality of life. Moreover, insulation reduces the amount of heating needed. In Mongolia, heating comes from burning coal, which releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide, hastening climate change.

The crew constructed brick columns, concrete reinforced bond beams and the roof before installing bales.

From 1997 through 2000, Lerner worked in Mongolia for months at a time, teaching local engineers, architects and builders about straw bale construction, and providing rural and urban buildings.

She then shifted operations to China. Earthquakes in 1999 and 2000 had affected millions in that country, creating an urgent need for construction. Lerner and others rebuilt a school: China’s first straw bale building. She then guided people to build more than 700 passive-solar-heated straw bale houses in that country.

Overall, Lerner says, her efforts succeeded far more in China than in Mongolia. That’s because China has a long tradition of building, whereas Mongolians were nomadic until about a century ago.

Crews developed plastering techniques that tied bales and bricks into an integral wall unit.

The work continues in China without Lerner, who trained people to take her place. She disliked that her travel to and from Asia left a large carbon footprint. Plus, any solution from the outside (especially from an American) can come across as imperialistic and ethnocentric, she says: “It’s important that whatever you introduce becomes Chinese. If there’s not a Chinese version of it, it’s not going to stick.”

Co-author with architect Carol Venolia of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So- Green House, Lerner now focuses on problems in her own country. She says, “I think the way the rest of the world develops is incredibly important. But, man, we have so much work to do here in the United States to clean up our own house. Jesus said something about taking the log out of your own eye before you worry about the splinter in somebody else’s. And that’s the way I feel about what we need to do in the United States. We need to figure out how to stop using so much energy. We need to shrink our ecological footprint, and we need to do it fast.”

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