Hopi mother looks to history for housing solutions

Stories and photo by S.J. Wilson
Kykotsmovi, Arizona (NFIC) 10-07

Lillian Hill and one of her twin daughters stand in the doorway of a cob piki house she began this past summe

Lillian Hill was about twelve when her family moved into a brand new HUD demonstration home in her remote village in northern Arizona. What was supposed to be an uplifting experience quickly turned into heartbreak, and Hill’s family was not alone – fourteen other recipients experienced the same situation. The homes were fraught with serious structural and electrical problems and were quickly condemned.

“These demonstration homes featured a frame wall with stone veneer over plywood,” Hill said in an interview. “The women – mostly single mothers – had expected homes designed with conventional Hopi architectural features – and that’s why the homes had the stones and the vigas and other features.”

As the problems presented themselves, the homes were evaluated and it was quickly determined that it would cost more to renovate the homes than they were worth. All but one has been demolished – it stands abandoned behind the used mobile home Hill’s mother purchased to replace it

This history has had quite an impact on Hill – who is now a mother with her own children to consider. Needing a home for her own growing family, Hill had the experience of other women in her village on her mind – and she determined that she wanted a stone house like those in the villages across the Hopi Reservation.

Approximately two miles away from Kykotsmovi on the mesa top overlooking the village is Old Oraibi (Orayvi) – credited with being the longest continuously occupied “town” in America – being built between 1100-1200 A.D. The building material, stone blocks, has been recycled throughout this history, and the “pueblo” has withstood the test of time.

One day Hill noticed an intriguing flyer for a natural earth building training being held in Mexico, the technique was called “cob.”

“I went onto the Internet and looked up the company – the Cob Cottage Company – and went to Oregon to take a course,” Hill said. “I had always wanted a stone house, but I learned about cob construction. Many of us at Hopi do not have a lot of money, and I learned that this was a very affordable way to build a house. We are all concerned about natural resources and the land here, and cob building is natural.”

An important factor to Hill is that anyone – man, woman or child – can do cob work.

“I am building this home along with young children,”Hill is fond of saying. “If I can do it, anyone can.”

“I am building this home along with young children,” Hill is fond of saying. “If I can do it, anyone can.”

Cob isn’t for every environment – but the earth at Hill’s village home site is perfect for the process, which is similar to adobe in that clay and sand is used, but cob includes a higher percentage of straw. Further, the material is not formed into bricks or blocks. Instead, it is mixed by bare feet.

Hill and her friends have mixed the cob on top of a layer of common blue tarps seen everywhere on the reservation. Even when expecting her twins, Hill delighted in joining local youth in mixing the material – and often more than feet became covered with the mixture.

The mixture is then passed by hand in large gobs – or cobs – and formed into freeform walls that can be very artistically arranged.

Hill and Carranza began work on the house in April of 2003, and though the process has been slower than she would like, Hill’s only regret in her choice of building material is that she hasn’t had more time to devote to the structure – and it is too cold to work on the house in the winter. But she allows that the process has been easy, and she and Carranza expect to move their family into their new home in the spring of 2008.

“We have had other families express an interest in cob building,” Hill said. “We’ve taught about 16 workshops here at Hopi since we started the house, and we’ve trained 150 to 200 people.

Hill and Carranza also direct the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Program, which includes a summer youth leadership program.

“Our Tutskwa program partnered with another Hopi youth group, Truthful, and we’ve trained the youth to make bread ovens and benches. Now they are spread out across Hopi, working on their own projects. A lot of people want to build small structures like piki houses, tool sheds and courtyard walls.”

The earth at Hopi, Hill said, is pure sand, so it is necessary to add clay – one and a half parts to three parts sand – and then the straw.

“All of the little ones want to learn how to do things,” Hill continued. “I was brought up with a lot of values and teachings,” Hill said. “There is so much going on, so many things people are doing here at Hopi – like dry farming, natural building techniques, the re-establishment of gardens and passing on Hopi ecological knowledge.

It is possible to create cob through mechanized methods – such as the use of a backhoe – but that diminishes the organic flavor that individuals like Hill and Carranza hunger for.

The cob house that children have helped build is quite insulating, and will be comfortable even in extreme temperatures.

Hill’s home includes Hopi features such as benches that run along the walls similar to those one would find in a kiva – and also features an impressive hardwood loft.

Cob is considered an earthen building technique, and mankind has lived in earthen homes for over 9,000 years now – with one third of the world population living in earthen homes. Cob building techniques were common in England, Scotland and Wales in the 1900s, and many of these homes are still standing.

Earthen building processes are cheap, environmentally sound, and recyclable.

Cob can be made thick enough to bear the load of a roof, obviously, and Hill’s home is big enough for family comfort without being so big as to ignore the close-knit, serviceable homes of the Hopi people.

One of Hill’s primary goals is to help bring sustainability back to the Hopi people.

“One could provide him or herself with an income doing this if they became skilled at it,” Hill said. “When we did some of our workshops, we did charge people from outside the reservation to attend, but our main interest is in teaching our people to build homes to be self-sufficient and use local resources.”