Putting Spearfish on the natural Building Map

By Kaija Swisher Black Hills Pioneer


SPEARFISH — He’s become the “go-to” guy in the area to direct questions regarding natural building, and March 3-9, Jared “Cappie” Capp, of Spearfish, will share that knowledge and experience on a global stage as one of the presenters at the 2016 International Straw Building Conference in New Zealand.

“It’s exciting to try to bring legitimacy to this style of building and to gain some traction, and I’m hugely flattered to have gained recognition by this organization,” Capp said.

The five-day conference, an opportunity for builders, homeowners, engineers, architects, designers, building officials, housing providers, building suppliers, farmers, researchers, academics — anybody who wishes to learn more about sustainable building — to gather and learn, features keynote speakers, presentations from delegates, hands-on workshops and displays, trade shows, social events, tours, and even Straw Bale Olympics.

Capp, the owner of Pangea Design, a construction company that specializes in natural building and also offers conventional building focused on reused, natural, and locally-sourced materials, has been interested in building his whole life. Born and raised in Spearfish, Capp joined the Air Force after high school, and during his service, he had the chance to see various building designs and materials utilized around the world. These experiences inspired Capp to learn more about intentional and natural building design, and through the years, he’s built and taught across the country and returned to blaze a trail in his hometown.

Capp attended the International Straw Building Conference in Estes Park, Colo., in 2012, which connected him with others in the industry who organized this year’s event. The title of Capp’s presentation, “Building with Straw in a Natural Building Desert,” will track some of the hurdles and process he encountered as he built a code-approved, off-grid, straw bale home, fondly referred to as “Granny Flats,” on Nellie Lane in Spearfish.

“My hope at the conference is to show people that it can be done,” he said. “If I can do it in the Black Hills of South Dakota, you can do it.”

The 648-square-foot house, with conventionally-built front wall covered with wooden and metal siding and three exterior, two-foot-thick walls made of straw bales covered with 4-6 inches of cob, a mixture of local clay and sand, features an approximately 10,000-pound rocket mass heater, a highly efficient wood stove, which heats the straw bale house with 30 feet of stovepipe inside the wall. There are solar panels attached to the roof to convert sunlight into electricity, and a composting toilet and greywater system, which recycles usable water from sinks and showers for onsite uses like landscape irrigation, complete the alternative build and keep the house completely off-grid. Though Capp had to get approval from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and to ensure everything met city and state requirements, he intentionally took the route less traveled to show that it was possible.

“My intention was for it to be a little bit of a flagship with the style of construction … the harder way to build it, and the more extreme way to build it from the engineering standpoint, structural standpoint, and I did that to kind of set the bar,” he said, describing that the same model could be hooked to the conventional sewer and grid-tied power. “My hope was to show that you can have a nice, comfortable, efficient house,” he said. He said many people have a certain picture in their heads of what a 648-square-foot, off-grid, straw bale home looks like, but amenities and aesthetics aren’t sacrificed: his house includes a vaulted ceiling, flat-screen television, wireless internet, on-demand hot water double showerheads, washer and dryer, etc. — with no utility bills.

“I’m not interested in building houses. I’m interested in building homes,” he said, explaining that his hope is for people to know that they have options in terms of building design. “You can live in a healthier house.”

Capp is looking forward to learning new techniques and making connections at the conference.

“It’s really nice to go to these events and just be with other people that are excited about what they do for a living, and learning things, too,” he said, describing some of the other “thinking outside of the conventional building box” happening around the world, such a company in Canada making pre-fabricated straw bale walls; a group in California working to put straw bale into the International Building Code; a company in Moab creating straw bale homes for low-income housing; and more.

As a builder, Capp sees the trend moving in the direction of natural building, which excites him, as well as the movement of people wanting to be responsible for their footprint for their own and the next generation’s sake.

“Change isn’t bad; it just has to be well thought-out,” he said. Capp has open sourced all of the information, engineering, and designs of his home so that others wishing to build something similar have a starting point to make their journey easier.

“My hope would be to encourage other people not to look at it as a fight, but to look at it as a challenge worth accepting, to look at themselves as an educator,” he said of working to make natural building design a norm.

And Capp has taken on that role, both through presenting at the international conference and also through summer workshops he will offer on sustainability topics like alternative construction, alternative energy sources, farming, zoning and building code compliance, and more.

“We live in a great place to have really diverse building style,” he said, adding, “I’m excited about Spearfish. I’m excited about the city government. I’m excited about some of the cool things we’re doing,” he said. “I think that being part of the community and wanting to be involved in the community is important for everybody to shape how that goes.”

For more information about the conference, visit strawbuildconference.co.nz, and to learn more about Capp’s local sustainability workshops, visit pangeadesigngroup.com.