Tucson, Arizona is beloved by snowbirds, but best avoided late spring to early fall: It’s just too hot. Located in the Sonoran desert (though it rains a bit too much here—an average of about 12 inches—for it to fit the official international definition—10 or less inches a year—of a desert), Tucson has always had warm summers. With Tucson between 2500 (most of the city) and 3700 (the densest part of the foothills that surround the city core) feet of altitude, however, and with frequent “monsoons” (thunderstorms), summers once were largely tolerable. With warming global temperatures from Climate Change, however, that is no longer true. Tucson summers have gotten noticeably hotter in the last two decades or so, and have become “sizzling”.
That is all the more reason that the traditional earthen building techniques of the Tohono O’odham (American Indian) Nation are needed. Traditional earthen (including adobe) buildings are adapted to the desert environment; they provide substantial natural insulation against the summer sun and winter chills of the Sonoran desert. There is also substantial potential for their use in other regions and environments, though. They also use natural, local, non-polluting materials. When constructed properly, earthen-buildings are highly durable and aesthetically appealing. Unfortunately, the Tohono O’odham people lost much of their knowledge and skills for earthen construction in the last 75-100 years. Under U.S. federal policy and control, almost all recent building on the Tohono O’odham Reservation has been “stick-built” (i.e., wood frame) construction that used imported materials and standard nationwide federal plans for Indian housing. As a result of U.S. federal government approaches, most housing at O’odham is currently dilapidated (or even derelict).
A few years ago, the Sustainable Nations Institute (located in Tucson and headed by PennElys Droz) began a project to train Tohono O’odham tribal members on earthen and other sustainable-building techniques. In the last year, in collaboration with University of Arizona faculty member and Director of Tribal Initiatives Keith James and with partial support from the Fulbright-Canada EcoLeadership Program, Sustainable Nations has expanded that project. Greater numbers of O’odham tribal members are being trained, and they are also being aided with establishing a social enterprise designed to do earthen building both for the Tohono O’odham people, and for non-O’odham in the Tucson metropolitan area, and throughout the Southwestern U.S.
The project continues. Mounting of a website for the social enterprise is planned, as is fund-raising to expand the training and incorporate a non-profit, cooperative, sustainable building organization run by tribal members. Tucson summers may be too hot, but the Tohono Earthen Building group is providing partial solace, and a sustainable solution.