August 2016

Rebuilding Sustainable Communities in the Southwest

Hopi Tutskwa Sustainable Building Program

Lilian Hill

Indigenous peoples have always built dwellings from the land and into the land. Hopi houses, traditionally built cooperatively by clans or families, are composed of sandstone gathered from mesa-tops or roughly cut, laid and finished in earth plaster. The ceilings are supported by ponderosa pine or piñón-juniper beams and cross poles and consist of a compressed mixture of brush and clay. The floors are constructed of flagstone or tamped earth, and the interior walls are generally whitewashed with white kaolin clays and sometimes ornamented in simple geometric bands. These traditionally built stone and earth homes and traditional building techniques have been developed and nurtured by my people, the Hopi, for countless generations.

Last year in Kykotsmovi Village, young Hopi natural building students carried on these traditional building techniques as we began construction on our first home through the newly developed Hopi Tutskwa Sustainable Building Program. Through a partnership between Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture and Moab, Utah-based Community Rebuilds, we have developed a student education program that trains young emerging professionals in how to build affordable, energy-efficient and sustainable homes using local natural materials. In addition we offer low-interest home construction loans to qualifying low-income families who are in need of housing.

With technical assistance and funding from Community Rebuilds, Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture is scheduled to build seven sustainable homes and one community center in four years, training groups of Hopi students along the way. According to program Director Jacobo Marcus, “We’re teaching the students every step of the way, which is what Community Rebuilds does. We’re empowering them so that they can build homes together for their own families.”

Since we started our program we have received a positive response from the Hopi community. “We are in a very remote location, so we’re looking to empower the community here in Hopi,” Marcus said. “We’re trying to empower the young and all people to gain the skills and knowledge so they can build their own house, which is how it was done for generations.”

Our first home was completed by our first group of natural-building students in October of 2016 and is a wonderful example of sustainability. It is a passive-solar designed home that features an off-grid solar electrical system, rainwater harvesting cisterns, greywater plumbing, solar water-heating, trombe walls and a passive solar greenhouse. Building elements include local sandstone stem walls, exterior straw-bale walls, interior thermal mass cob walls, adobe floors, earthen plasters, lime and tadelackt finishes, and the use of natural wool insulation and locally sourced ponderosa pine.

In addition, the homes are regenerative in design by functioning off-grid, and families have the opportunity to grow a substantial amount of food in passive-solar greenhouses that are included in the building design.

Our focus is to make the homes as energy-independent as possible. The homes will be connected and interrelated to the environment to serve more than the function of housing. They will interact with the environment in a positive way—harvesting and reusing water to vegetate the landscape, generating energy needs from the sun and not from fossil fuels, and so much more.

Our program is committed to building affordable and culturally relevant sustainable housing for the Hopi community and is designed to address the critical housing need within the Hopi community, where families are often homeless or live in substandard housing. As within many Indigenous communities within the U.S. and around the world, new housing construction is of poor quality, ignorant of cultural needs, and expensive—particularly in relation to income and traditional lifestyle. Within the Hopi community of 10,000, only 41 percent are homeowners, and 30 percent of existing housing has serious deficiencies. In addition, 75 percent of non-owners live with extended family, and 35 percent of homes are overcrowded (

There is also the problem of affordability and lack of agencies or programs that are addressing the need for affordable and sustainable housing. Generally, homes constructed today include recently built cinderblock homes, manufactured homes (trailers) and poorly built federal HUD homes. Homes constructed today on the Hopi Reservation cost between $65,000 and $100,000. Statistically, 56.5 percent of the Hopi population is below poverty level, while 22.9 percent are considered low-income—and therefore, adequate housing lies outside the financial reach of many. These statistics demonstrate the great need for affordable, culturally relevant housing within the Hopi community, and are typical of many Indigenous communities throughout the world.

There are many aspects of modern earth and natural stone construction that address these various housing problems within Indigenous communities. Sustainable housing is particularly important for low-income families of Indigenous communities, who have the greatest need for utilities savings, lower maintenance costs and homes that are culturally sound. With the onset of global environmental problems and the effects of logging, mining and drilling for the construction industry and modern development, we understand that it is time to focus on ideas of sustainability and innovation when building communities.

Through the process of building homes, students and homeowners will gain opportunities to continue to be stewards of the environment. 

“We want to inspire the community to have a closer relationship with their homes and their own traditional knowledge,” Marcus said. “By having a closer relationship to the materials for the earthen walls and floors, they know where the materials come from. It’s more appreciated and better for the environment to use natural materials,” he added. “Our intent is to help people make wiser choices about buildings and to learn simple alternatives that we have known for thousands of years.”

Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture will finish its second sustainable, natural home in August. To follow our process online and read student blogs, visit our Facebook page: Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture: Natural Building Internship Program. And visit our website:


Lilian Hill is director of the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute. She is a certified Permaculture designer and has studied at the North American School of Natural Building and Northern Arizona University, focusing on Applied Indigenous Studies and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Hill lives in Kykotsmovi Village with her husband and children in their hand-built home. She is a member of the Tobacco clan and participates in ceremonies, fulfilling family/clan responsibilities, works with youth and community, plants orchards, cares for gardens, tends honeybee hives and lives a good life.




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