Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page PRE-WEB ARCHIVES:
No. 28, Spring/Summer 1989
Desert Architecture

Toward A Responsive Tohono O'Odham Dwelling

By Richard G. Brittain and Matts A. Myhrman

"I think it's a good idea to ask us Papagos how we want our house and not just build something the white people like. Maybe we like something different than they do."
(Representative Tohono O'odham response to interview about this project)

This article introduces the Tohono O'Odham, some characteristics of their desert climate, and some of their desires for a more responsive architecture. Specifically, we are describing an ongoing process of getting to know them and one project, the Bahoquivari District Office. Our general goal is to help the Tohono O'Odham build for themselves and respond to the following conditions:

  • the tendency for Federal money spent on Indian housing to go to non-Indians as payment for materials and contracted services;
  • the tragic scarcity of job opportunities on the Reservation and, in particular, a lack of satisfying, creative, constructive work with a visible product that the creators can be proud of;
  • the preference of many Tohono O'Odham for a dwelling that, although modern, comfortable, and energy-efficient, reflects their cultural heritage and the desert in which they dwell.

The Tohono O'Odham

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The Tohono O'Odham, the desert people, recently reestablished their ancestral name after many years of being known as Papagos. They reside in a portion of the northwestern Sonoran Desert. Their ancestral homelands bridge the international border of Mexico and the United States; however, in 1916 the United States defined for them a four-part Reservation of 4,462 square miles in southern Arizona. Recent estimates approximate the tribal population on the Reservation to be between 7,500 and 12,000 with about 2,000 living in Sells, the largest community.

Their land is the hottest of North American deserts. Hot summers, cool winters, extreme diurnal temperature fluctuations, low humidity, high evaporation and a biannual rainfall pattern dictate strategies for maintaining human comfort. At Sells mean daily temperatures range between 72° F to 10° F in July and 36° F to 65° F in January. Water evaporation from an open tank can exceed 6 ft. annually. Sells receives a yearly precipitation of about 12 inches with approximately the same amounts falling during the winter and summer rainy seasons.

Contemporary Housing Preferences

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Beginning in 1976, a number of activities occurred that produced information about Tohono O'Odham preferences for housing. The first was initiated by Father Richard Purcell, then priest at the Covered Wells Catholic Church on the Reservation. His informal interviews with Tohono O'Odham revealed a strong preference for certain aspects of traditional earth houses. (1) His interviews elicited such statements as:

... I think it's a good idea to ask us Papagos how we want our house and not just build something the white people like. Maybe we like something different than they do. For my house I always want to have it like the way we are supposed to have it in our way. I want my kitchen to be in another place away from our sleeping place, yes, like two different buildings, but close together and with the watto (shade) in-between to kind of hold them together.

... We need to have a cooking place in one house and a sleeping place in another house. It's not good to sleep and eat in the same place. And you shouldn't put your toilet too close to your house like they always do in town ...

... The only kind of house I want is one made out of shampt (adobe). That's the best kind. And I like it to have cement on the outside.

... I don't like that new house we got now. It's too big, and it's all cement walls and floors. It makes us sick to stay in a house of cement. It gives us colds in the wintertime. And that gas for the heat is bad for us Papagos, too. It makes us get a headache. I guess wood is the best thing to use in the stove. The beans just won't cook on that gas.

... But in my new house I want a special little place in one of the rooms for my saints ... I don't like them to be just on the dresser or someplace like that ... Yes, something built into the wall like that is what I want and I always want to cook on a wood stove and use wood fire to make the house warm.

Author Brittain, then a graduate student in the College of Architecture at the University of Arizona, became involved with the information gathering process in 1977. At that time, representatives of the Tribe, including then Tribal Councilman Ed Kisto, requested assistance from the College in developing alternatives to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program. These Tohono O'Odham representatives described several problems associated with the program, many of which were later identified in a report for HUD by the Papago Planning Department (1978) (1):

  • the image created by the houses was inappropriate--they didn't look like they belonged in the desert or to a Papago;
  • the housing was too costly to be paid for by those who most needed it and cost too much to heat and cool;
  • only the needs of people living in, or willing to live in the larger communities were being addressed;
  • the replacement of owner-built traditional housing by housing by contractor-built housing meant the loss, to the extended family, of the benefits of working together on such a project;
  • traditional Papago values like sharing, equality, and not standing out as better than your neighbors are undermined by the sharp contrast between expensive federally-subsidized new homes and the traditional low-cost owner-built adobe homes;
  • of the millions of dollars spent to construct HUD housing, none of it had entered the Papago economy. The money had all been used to stimulate the Anglo construction industry through purchase of materials and services off the Reservation.

In response to this request for assistance, a number of day-long meetings were held at Ed Kisto's ranch with Tohono O'Odham and Anglos to discuss Tohono O'Odham housing preferences and develop tentative design concepts for a responsive dwelling. Additional resource persons were then consulted; written and photographic resources related to traditional houses also were reviewed. Next, Kisto and Father Purcell arranged tours of several villages so photographs and measurements could he taken of existing structures with the desired design features or qualities. Conceptual drawings and a scale model for a prototype dwelling were prepared by Brittain. These materials were shown to various groups and individuals, with their comments and suggestions recorded for later use in refining the design. The value of the three-dimensional model for communicating design concepts to Tohono O'Odham became clear during this stage.

At this point, however, the process came to a temporary standstill. Funding was not obtained for the actual construction of a prototype dwelling. Ed Kisto began to explore with the Bahoquivari District Council the possibility of building a district office using sun-dried, asphalt-stabilized adobes produced in the village of Pisinimo. Although such a building would not be a residence, it could incorporate certain aspects of the prototype dwelling and demonstrate that a Tohono O'Odham crew could build with adobes made on the Reservation an energy-efficient, passive solar building.

The Baboquivari District Office Complex

Baboquiviri District Office
Thumbnail link to image of Baboquiviri District Office, ~25K file

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A decision was subsequently made to proceed with the project, and the authors were asked to prepare an initial conceptual design and model. We felt strongly, for several reasons, that adobe was the appropriate material for the project:

  • Stabilized mud bricks were being produced on the Reservation. Adobe would provide the required thermal mass for a passive solar design.
  • The construction team to be assembled for the project would probably already have experience laying adobes. If not, these skills could be learned easily, something not true of the skills required to lay concrete block or do frame construction.
  • The aesthetic fit with the desert and traditional architecture was good.
  • In terms of the demonstration value of the building, it would make sense to build with a user-friendly material, one appropriate for owner-builders.
  • Very little maintenance would he required for the exposed adobe walls.

Meetings with the District Council and with Ed Kisto provided additional information about such things as proposed uses, space requirements and the preference that restrooms be in a separate building. An initial design and a cardboard model were subsequently presented to members of the Baboquivari District Council at two of their regular day-long meetings in July and August of 1981. Ed Kisto and Madelaine Sakiestewa, chairperson for the District Council, provided translation of the authors' presentation into Tohono O'Odham and of comments made in Tohono O'Odham into English.

Following these meetings, changes were made in the design until consensus was reached that it was right for the people and for the place, a site just southeast of Topawa, at the junction of the dirt road leading to Baboquivari Canyon. The building was laid out in true scale on the site using saguaro ribs and stones as markers. After the Council had walked around the site and experienced the proposed design, adjustments were made in location of the building and certain dimensions. Again, the value of using something other than normal architectural drawings to convey the proposed design became evident.

Our commitment to significant client involvement in the design process dictated patience and a pace geared to "decision by consensus." These were essential to the validity of the end result and to client perception and acceptance of the actual building. The time was well spent.

Actual site preparation and construction began in November 1981 with Ed Kisto functioning as overall project manager. Since the job was too small to justify a foreman solely for supervision, the authors shared this role with Ed Kisto and a Tohono O'Odham member of the crew, Simon Lopez. Tribal labor came primarily from Topawa, the small village just north of the building site. The building was ready for use in January of 1983.

As in a traditional rancheria, the arrangement of the separate structures is loose and informal. The dispersed pattern ensures that neither the ramada nor restroom will shade the solar south windows during winter. Also, the buildings define an outdoor space much used for gathering and socialization. It is almost as if the spaces created between the buildings are as significant as those enclosed.

Office Complex floorplan
Thumbnail link to diagram of floorplan, ~33K file

The floor plan for the main building incorporates an office space, a full kitchen and a meeting room. The long south wall faces 15 degrees southeast and captures early morning sun during the winter months. In addition, this orientation provides views from the east-facing and the larger south-facing windows of Baboquivari Peak, held sacred by Tohono O'Odham as the home of their creator I'itoi.

Climatic conditions at the site make cooling considerations most important. The office utilizes only ceiling fans, cross-ventilation and convective venting but could accommodate evaporative cooling at any time. To date the evaporative cooler has not been added. The overhead fans--two in the meeting room and one in the office--provide the equivalent of natural breezes at a very low energy cost. Also critical in keeping the building cool is the roof overhang along the south side. Its dimensions ensure that the south wall and its glaring are fully shaded during the hottest summer months yet allow full penetration of the winter sun into the structure. Ground cover prevents reflected radiation during the summer.

For heating, the building depends primarily upon direct solar gain through south-facing glass in doors and windows. Storage of the absorbed heat in the brick floor and high-mass wall materials prevents daytime air temperatures from becoming uncomfortably high. At night this reservoir of stored heat prevents the inside air temperature from dropping uncomfortably low. In addition, the effect of radiant energy from the warm floor and walls makes the spaces feel comfortable even when the room air temperature is less than that normally required in a structure of low-mass construction. A total area of south-facing glass equivalent to about 10 percent of the floor area to be heated has kept the building comfortable despite the use of single-pane glass throughout. Open fireplaces with efficient Count Rumford-style fireplaces that use outside air for combustion provide backup heating during especially cold and cloudy periods. Mesquite firewood purchased from local woodcutters replaces nonrenewable fossil fuels that must be purchased off the Reservation. The firewood is used for cooking outdoors. Propane usage is limited to the kitchen range. Hot water for dish washing is provided by a 10-gallon electric heater under the kitchen sink.

The walls of both the restroom structure and the main building were built using 10 in x 14 in x 4 in asphalt-stabilized, sun-dried adobes made in Pisinimo, about 60 miles from the job site. Transportation charges added significantly to the cost of the bricks, but since the hauling was done by Tohono O'Odham, the money entered the local economy. Stabilized mortar for laying up the walls was mixed on-site using local adobe soil and emulsified asphalt purchased in Tucson.

In keeping with the collective resourcefulness of the Tohono O'Odham, locally available materials were used wherever appropriate. A red and a white flagstone found in the nearby foothills was used to pave the main entry ramada on the northwest corner of the main building. Support for the ramada roof structure is partly provided by two mesquite posts and a single layer of ocotillo stalks laced together by wires provides the shade covering. A portion of the ceiling of the meeting hall consists of dry ribs from saguaro cacti nailed to the roof joists in a V-pattern. Since completion of the office complex, the District has built a number of traditional brush and wattle-and-daub buildings nearby that are visible from the windows of the meeting hall with Bahoquivari Peak on the horizon. The traditional structures enable the Tohono O'Odham to associate the materials used in the new building with the buildings they constructed in the past.

Ongoing contact with the clients leads us to believe that the buildings at the office complex are performing well. The meeting room is comfortable year-round using only the ceiling fans and fireplaces. Minor problems have required attention, but little unexpected maintenance has been necessary. Landscaping with desert species and the addition of a rustic mesquite post fence have further enhanced the fit of the buildings.


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In retrospect, the authors feel that they and their Tohono O'Odham counterparts gained considerable, valuable experience and made real progress toward the Tohono O'Odham building for themselves in a way responsive both to their cultural heritage and their present situation. We view this building and others we have done as the first steps in an uncertain but ongoing process. What happens next depends largely upon the interests and aspirations of key individuals like Ed Kisto who find these initial experiences inspiring. Should the Department of Housing and Urban Development choose to make Federal money available for "unconventional" housing (i.e., housing that does not meet its normal technical standards), the process could take a significant new direction. An ideal scenario would provide Federal money for certain materials and supervisory assistance to families interested in building for themselves with earthen materials. Whatever happens, be it one of the possibilities mentioned here or something as yet unforeseen, we hope to continue our involvement for as long as needed.


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  1. Papago Planning Department. 1978 Final report to HUD 701 on Phase V housing activities, 1976-77, Vol 2. Papago Tribe, Sells, Arizona. 110 p. [Back to text]

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Author Information

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Richard G. Brittain is assistant research professor in the UA College of Architecture whose specialty is resource conservation in desert architecture. Matts A. Myhrman is a self-employed consultant specializing in alternative building strategies.

Credits and copyright information

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