Archmere senior and friends turn to clay, sand and straw to build sustainable housing for the homeless
CLAYMONT — Brennan Stark’s schedule has been full since his arrival at Archmere Academy in Claymont nearly four years ago. In addition to academics, he is involved in other activities that include the Mastersingers. But a bit over a year ago, he was searching for more.
Stark, now a senior, and longtime friend Steven Burns were kicking around some ideas one Saturday about a number of topics, and the pair discussed what a home should be.
“We just brainstormed for a couple of hours and came up with words like comfortable, efficient, sustainable,” Stark said recently at Archmere.
Stark said he and Burns, in that search for more, decided they wanted to help others while building a more sustainable world. So they started Y Innovations with a group of friends, with the idea of helping people and the environment. One of their projects is to construct homes for those without one.
“We’re using a technique called natural building,” using materials found in the environment, Stark said.
Y Innovations’ first project used a material called cob — a mix of clay, sand and straw — to build a 200-square foot storage trailer at the Siegel Jewish Community Center in Brandywine Hundred. Stark and his cohorts are working with architects, builders and local government on their first home, “which is going to combine cob with straw bales. The advantage to that is that straw bales are extremely energy-efficient. They’re really good insulators,” he said.
They hope to build their first home in the summer of 2018, although they are still working on location and other details. Volunteers will perform much of the work, but professionals will handle tasks beyond their scope. The main expenses are materials and land, so Y Innovations has been holding fundraisers.
The group would like to finish a few houses to show people that it can be done and is worthwhile for the communities that host them. Stark has learned through his research that failure to clear plans with neighbors has often been the downfall of other attempts to provide housing for the less fortunate. Y Innovations is trying to avoid that.
The group is working with Family Promise of New Castle County, which works to end homelessness. That organization would screen the families who would get the homes, he said.
“If you hear, ‘Homeless people are coming into your community,’ I can see people being concerned, but when you explain to the people, ‘We’re working with Family Promise to identify the homeless families who will live in this house,” that allays concerns, he said.
“Mostly it’s people who have just fallen on hard times. It’s an education issue on our part. We haven’t run into people being upset so far, but I think that’s because we’re in the early stages.
“What we’re trying to do is engage everybody up front. I think when you educate people up front, that does a lot to prevent those issues,” he continued.
Most of the core group of Y Innovations are students at Archmere and Mount Pleasant High School, which Burns attends, and many are seniors. Stark will attend the University of Delaware and major in computer science and civil engineering, so he will be able to stay involved in his organization. Other members also are attending college close by. But Stark said there are younger students ready to step into leadership roles, and the graduating seniors have talked to their principals about coming back to talk to future classes about getting involved.
Stark said he has done a lot of community service throughout his adolescence, including tutoring. He has been inspired by teachers who were always willing to give of their time, so he doesn’t see his work with Y Innovations as an imposition at all.
“When I started learning about building projects that not only were cheaper, but could potentially help a lot of people in need and could help the world and help reduce carbon emissions and water emissions, it made too much sense. There wasn’t a reason not to do it.”