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Straw-bale Dwelling for the Navajo Nation
'I belong to my earth mother'

Architecture is a physical manifestation of materials clearly governed by intrinsic values of a living culture.  Navajo architecture follows this precept.  Navajo philosophy of life is living in balance with nature and nurturing your mind to a spiritual purpose.   Navajos originate from places where the landscape is a mirror of us - a living being.  The land is nurturing therefore is customarily referred to as earth mother.  'Ni hi ma' is what we call our origin -a metaphorical birthplace.   This belief is continuously practice by families as described:  When a child is born the umbilical cord dries, and it detaches naturally and the family is obligated to put this special feature beneath the surface of mother earth within the boundaries of the four sacred mountains.  This ritual ensures that all Navajo children are attached to their earth mother.  Our belief is we belong to the land, our home.  This linkage literally recites self-identity.   Our first clan is from our mother.  We identify ourselves through her followed by whom we are born into - father's clan.      Therefore women are special in that sense due to the power of fertility and further symbolized by a geo-ritual understanding.


Hierarchy for the Navajos is based on a matrilineal clanship. A typical settlement will show a number of homes clustered next to each other - mostly settled by the mother's daughter (s).  In addition to these dwellings there are various structures within this homogenous landscape. They include shade arbors, sheep/livestock corrals, sweathouse, and a Hogan.  The Hogan is the center of family.    It represents the spiritual core within this microcosm.    Many Hogans are constructed utilizing modern materials due availability and ease of construction techniques.  Traditional Hogans are less visible since their tectonic construction relies on scarce cedar logs.

The reality of costly resources and inadequate funding dictates the process of affordable housing. There are a number of entities with great programs however the potential to reach a certain marketable mark is not within.  I believe many rural Navajos become fluent and understand these schemes as viable solutions however when monetary issues associated with the entire construction become visible; many Navajos have a tendency to withdrawn from the idea. The process of 'buying a home' is somewhat 'uneasy' and most of our Navajos living in rural areas are not familiar to this process, especially with their fixed income.  When you travel in the heart of the Nation, people generally will build within their own domain and way of construction. I thoroughly enjoy the character of our 'material economics'.  As a designer, I find delight and inspiration in seeing a Chevy engine hood as a part of the sheep corral!  Therefore a distinct understanding of the cultural norms is mandatory.

Discovery Project:  Straw Bale Hoog'han Construction.

For some time I have asked myself 'How can affordable housing be resolved on the Navajo Nation?'    I have thought extensively on finding solutions for better living conditions for the Navajo people.  As with other communities, the housing situation in Native America is considered 'alarming'.   This is one reason to have purpose for discovery.     Introduction of creative ideas is a way to conceive realistic solutions for a place that is described as a 'spiritual threshold' between earth and sky. Creation of this place will become a special center that will foster 'learning' and 'unlearning' - a bipolar attribute.  Learning because we are all conducive to daily patterns and the 'unlearning' attribute - a place where we can discard or do away with.

This 'discovery project' will be a unique design for a 'Navajo Hogan'. The design will be skewed with various components of technological intellect however will continue to follow a prescribed philosophy therefore ensuring cultural appropriateness within an ecological and cultural theatre.

Unique ideas include building with wheat straw bales as primary construction, implementing rainwater collection system, use of solar panels for active lighting and power, and use of recycled materials.  

Use of straw bales as a load bearing material has several advantages relative to cost.  It is available as a local, regional material; thermal resistance is high resulting in lower heating and cooling cost; easily constructed using mildly skilled personnel; and it is sustainable.

In addition to the advantages there seems to be a significant use for them - in a cultural context.  Navajos have a genuine adaptation to various materials as building components since much of the built traditional architecture is composed of stone, clay mud, bark or straw, and wood.    It wasn't until the last few decades Navajos begin using wood lumber, cement plaster, and concrete block as primary materials to construct homes.  As a result, the incorporation of these materials developed a `multi-canvas' landscape that seemed to diminish the culture yet signifies the temporal pattern of the Navajo Nation's economy

Building with straw bales would be appropriate since, as a by-product of wheat, it is comparable to corn stalks.   Corn is used in several delicacies as well as in ceremonies.  The `closed loop process' or by-products include: gathering of corn pollen when appropriate, collecting corn leaves for tobacco wraps, and finally as food for livestock.   Straw Bales has a parallel `looping process' to cornstalks therefore adapting them, as a building material, may seem prudent.

Navajo structures, whether constructed of lumber, logs, or straw bales, are quite fascinating since they represent a balance between cultural beliefs and a relationship to the land and its resources. The material character is simple in appearance yet communicates a sense of place between nature and culture. From this concept of 'interconnectedness', values and beliefs emerge as the template towards `Si anhaghaii  bei kee Hozho (Essence of all life, healthy living).

Richard K. Begay, Jr.