House Gods Sustainable Buildings and Renegade Builders

Visionary and value shaper, Jim Kristofic grew up on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona, and after immersion in that ambiance, became a writer and journalist. He recently conceived the notion to write about “Sustainable Buildings and Renegade Builders”—the subtitle of his new book, House Gods. Recently released by the University of New Mexico Press, this book is part technology, part science, part friending, part memoir, and part philosophy.

Kristofic’s journey into the deeper meaning of who we are as revealed by why and how and what we live in began, he recalls, when he worked as a park ranger in Diné Bikéya—Navajo country. Then and there he took tourists on tours of an old trading post with all the history that such a building evokes. His interest in structures and their formation grew into this wide-ranging chronicle.

Taken away from the formulaic bricks-and-boards realm of typical house construction, real home creation can and should occupy an entirely different, almost mystical realm. Kristofic wanted to enter and explore that realm.

He opens his idealistic narrative with an imagined walk through the door of a hoghan, the basic Diné dwelling. The structure is composed of logs sealed with adobe mud whose entrance faces east so that the rising sun reflects a higher reality. The house god, whose name is Haashch’ééhoghan, stands at the entrance, welcoming and instilling spiritual thoughts in those who enter.

Contrasted to this ancient form of architecture based on simple building principles and a mind to spiritual truths, Kristofic began to observe how modern dwellings are pounded together with materials like gypsum, rubber, and steel. And he read the statistics, proving to himself that we, ourselves, are the greatest enemies of our natural environment: American houses use “72 percent of all electricity generated” and “125 percent more water” than would have been needed just fifty years ago. While most earthlings subsist on three gallons of water a day, Americans use a gallon with every flush. Think about it. I know I did, as I read Kristofic’s stories with a mix of open fascination and suppressed anger—and a growing hunger to care more, do more, as some of the builders he met and worked with are doing.

Kristofic took it upon himself—setting out with the faithful Rainey, a canine he rescued from extinction at an animal shelter—to travel through New Mexico, visiting a wide variety of nonconformist home builders. He learned from one that in that state, about 20 percent of the population lives in trailers, consuming huge amounts of energy—“these homes rob their renters at night,” particularly in the winter. Often the trailer dwellers are stuck in trailer poverty for years because of the convenience of the environment. Yet it is possible for most of us to build simple homes, with fewer eco-threatening materials and more reliance on solar energy, more direct water supplies, and less depletion of the fuels that we, as the world’s largest consumers of the earth’s resources, are more and more rapidly sapping. Homes that the house gods would gladly share with us.

One featured form of housing found in Kristofic’s rambles of discovery are the notable Earthships prevalent in the West, in his childhood haunts, as nowhere else. Earthships are constructed especially for harvesting solar power. Earthships, where they exist, stand out in a desert landscape, looking at times almost like shrines, depending on the artistic whims of their builders who use the principle of the “catenary arch” to provide the strength that will permit large earth berms to be propped behind them. The array of front windows will, by their positioning, allow for optimal solar soaking that can result in the Earthship serving as a greenhouse in the cold months. They use rubber—yes, from recycled, or “upcycled” tires. Metal is also reused and remarkably, flexibly, imaginatively repurposed. But a major proportion of the Earthship’s materials will probably be locally harvested—mud, stone, wood, and sand.

Along with the Earthship and its inherent demonstration of living by concentrating on the effort of creation and the storing of natural resources, Kristofic met with owners and builders of other kinds of ingenious abodes. One such is the straw bale house. This means of construction is, as they say, as old as the hills. Straw, as Kristofic points out, “is wood. It’s cellulose.” And straw bales may cost half of what the same quantity of bricks would run. Generally coated with adobe or other plaster, the straw structure retains heat remarkably effectively. And such structures will have as elegant an appearance as any plastered mansion. According to Wikipedia, the first known straw bale building in the US was a schoolhouse in Nebraska erected in 1896 that was later eaten by cows—hence the need for plaster! On the Great Plains during the height of the Homestead Act, there was sometimes a dearth of useable sod, and with the invention of the straw baler in the 1850s, straw houses provided a solution.

Other individuals encountered by Kristofic may live in more conventionally shaped structures, while coming up with unique ideas for saving energy such as “upside-down” fireplaces for better warming: the chimney’s top is small, so that heat, instead of being expelled through a large chimney opening, will fall back into the main, common room and rest there for human comfort. One little grouping of dedicated hipsters enthusiastically embraced what Kristofic says his own heritage had taught him: that winter is not for going outside, but for remaining indoors and seeking spiritual solace through ceremonies to reverence the deity or deities we choose, who make our safety and comfort possible—a good principle to remember, and perhaps easier to bear in mind when our homes are full of our personal efforts at natural preservation. As Kristofic poetically puts it, “we use the winter to build the things that keep us alive.”

The off-grid folk who come up with these ideas, and no doubt, borrow and trade them with others like themselves, are, the author states, “hard to find.” And no wonder, as what they want, and what they accomplish, is far too unconventional for the typical “main street.” And some may not wish to be found. Such non-conformers may have private lives as fraught with sorrows and challenges as those of anyone anywhere. But they and their stories exude a certain pride for their ingenuity and the salvation of earthly resources which is an essential part of their goal. Kristofic has made his search in order to prove to readers that even small efforts can make a difference. On his rambles, Kristofic observed a method of using and then moving outhouses—the same structure fulfilling its major purpose—since digging new holes and covering the old ones encourages soil rejuvenation while preventing soil poisoning. And one inventive home engineer had a port-a-john mounted on wheels—no holes dug.

A fascinating segment discusses and illustrates an adobe “rain planter” fed by roof rainwater runoff. The adobe “eases a plant’s survival in the summer” as well as protecting it in the icy winds of winter; the seeds take root in the mud below, and the water to feed them comes from the skies above.

You can imagine how desirable these innovations would be in the deserts of New Mexico, but, as described and in some cases photographed by the author, you can also imagine them, as I did, being used anywhere, with suitable accommodations to local nature. And you can envision, as Kristofic often does, the rewards of constructing a home literally from the ground up to the sky—permanent, unmortgaged, natural—that the house gods will want to inhabit with you. Perhaps by reading House Gods and contemplating its higher purpose, you may want to begin a construction project—a small greenhouse perhaps, or a new wall or a wing added to your current dwelling—in a way that expresses your you-ness.

Kristofic, author/co-author of numerous books (Medicine Women, Navajos Wear Nikes) and a widely read journalist, has constructed this new work diligently—not unlike the way the builders he interviews being their homes to life—as a powerful, practical study with idealistic purpose. He melds the timeless wisdom of indigenous peoples with the use of a plethora of the latest technologies and widely recognized, simple, modern components like wire and unfinished lumber, casts these inventions and ancient borrowings in a poetic light, and throws in a healthy dose of humor. His empathy for the weaknesses—and admiration for the strengths—of his fellow human beings shines through each passage. This is a book that should be read, shared, and studied by anyone who hopes to help save our planet for future generations.

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