Cornerstones and the Acoma Initiative
Earthen architectural heritage is more than artifact, and the conservation of that heritage requires far more than the treatment of material culture. On a small planet occupied by more than 6 billion people, the immense utility and versatility of earthen architecture is underscored by the knowledge that fully half those people live in or regularly use earthen buildings of one sort or another. Even if poverty is often the driving force behind the use of earth, the choice of material for three billion people attends the inevitable conclusion that in the use of earth are solutions to issues which even the affluent may find useful. This essay will look at one case, not yet a history, which is seeking to answer a modern need through the use of deep tradition. Incorporating and adapting the ways of the past to the imperatives of the present is heritage conservation in its most esteemed form. The past, after all, is prologue.
Among the indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States are those who have been referred to as the "first penthouse dwellers of America." The Pueblo communities of New Mexico and Arizona have long been renowned for their use of local natural resources in the construction of large, sustainable and highly efficient communal house blocks.
Early photos capture the beauty of the puebloan forms and hint at the adaptive approach to the environment. Later studies, notably at Acoma in the 1970's, verify that the orientation and massing of the house blocks took maximal advantage of solar exposure, allowed minimal exposure to prevailing westerly winter and spring winds, and took a cognizant approach to the conservation of heat. The precise alignment of the façades a few degrees east of south, and the stepped configuration of up to three stories capping the coolest, northernmost rooms were successful answers to environmental challenges. No modern day engineer could contrive a better solution using the materials of the time.
With technical assistance from Cornerstones Community Partnerships, one of the nation's preeminent community development and heritage preservation organizations, the Pueblo of Acoma Housing Authority has elaborated designs for a subdivision layout as well as plans for solar-supplemented earthen dwellings. They reflect the features and forms of the early, traditional houseblocks.
Construction of model homes, which is just beginning, will be predominantly of pressed earthen block. A cost analysis of the model homes demonstrate that the earthen structures will cost approximately 90¢/square foot more than a manufactured unit brought in from Albuquerque. And, of immense importance, the houses will be built by a local labor force.
Those of us who advocate for the use of earth as a building material, who see not just utility but beauty in homes constructed thus, are heartened by the visionary approach to their housing issues that the Pueblo of Acoma Housing Authority has taken. There are a great many communities who will be watching closely as this project unfolds. If it works, it will bring jobs to the locally unemployed, reduce the import of high energy-embodied materials such as Portland cement, and will result in homes that are efficient, beautiful and sustainable. And in the process of building them, local knowledge will be passed along through mentorship programs that are part of the building regime. Strong incentives, indeed.
The real estate industry may do well to keep an eye on this project, and to take an interest in what Cornerstones is doing -- at Acoma and, more broadly, throughout New Mexico, the Rio Grande valley in Texas and the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Working against the odds they are advancing the rationale for earthen building (in both heritage preservation and new construction) and demonstrating clearly that affordable housing does not have to imply mediocrity nor a break with custom. As rural and community planning paradigms change, and with the "New Urbanism" taking root even in New Mexico, it is the architecural forms and settlement patterns of communities like Acoma that provide the models; and Cornerstones is providing the connections between past and future.
For more information on Cornerstones Community Partnerships, call (505)982-9521, or log on to www.cstones.org.