A sustainability pioneer who apprenticed with an Egyptian architect who championed safe, low-cost housing, now builds adobe homes in the Texas desert and founded a nonprofit to teach others how.
In 1972 during a Paris dinner party, a friend told Simone Swan to read Architecture for the Poor by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. The book changed her life. Deeply moved by Fathy’s philosophy, Simone went to Egypt where she apprenticed with Fathy, then went on to build adobe houses in the west Texas desert using knowledge she gained half a world away. She went on to found a nonprofit — the Adobe Alliance (AdobeAlliance.org) — in order to carry out experiments in adobe building methods, including developing plasters that breathe. The Alliance schedules at least one workshop a year on how to build healthy, beautiful, and affordable homes.
In the 1960s and early ’70s Simone founded and ran Withers Swan, a unique public relations agency in New York that specialized in art and the environment and whose clients included museums and universities. Later she served as executive vice president of the Menil Foundation, a philanthropic organization. Then she read Fathy’s book in French (the French title translates as Building with the People), and was transformed by the architect’s vision of a sustainable society in which people in need of housing gained health, pride, and inspiration by cooperatively building their own beautiful homes from native materials such as earth. Simone contacted Fathy and went to Egypt several times to study architecture with him, visit his projects, assist him with translations, and help develop an institute to educate people about Fathy’s vision for low-income housing. By the time he died in 1989, Simone was determined to carry on his ideas.
What do the pyramids and sand dunes of Egypt have in common with west Texas? More than you might think, according to Simone. Both are fertile river valleys located in deserts, and even the climate and birds are similar. Egyptian culture centers around the Nile Valley, and Presidio, Texas — where Simone designs and builds adobe houses — is located at the confluence of the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande rivers (creating a fertile agricultural region) in the northeast corner of the Chihuahuan desert, about fifty miles west of Big Bend National Park. Like Egypt, agriculture was once a mainstay of Presidio’s economy, however landowners sold their water rights to El Paso, so Presidio now, also like Egypt, experiences high unemployment and significant poverty. Both regions have traditions of building homes out of the earth.
While visiting Big Bend National Park in 1991, Simone decided on a whim to assist with the restoration of a seventeenth-century hacienda that was named Fort Leaton when it became a fortified trading post in 1850. Simone thought that in Presidio she could carry on Fathy’s work. To this end Simone founded the nonprofit Adobe Alliance in the mid 1990s. Her goal is to build low-cost, energy-efficient housing that is climactically and environmentally compatible with desert environments. The people who attend Adobe Alliance workshops are inherently interested in, and attracted by, earth architecture.
A sheltering oasis
Simone’s home — Swan House — offers a sheltering oasis, and the curvaceous adobe roofing adds a touch of Islamic influence to this open Texas mesa dotted with stands of whip-like ocotillo and bushy creosote. Much of Simone’s design is based on what she learned from her mentor, and his influence is seen clearly in the courtyards and the roofline: five vaulted roofs and one dome.
Simone’s house, which she designed in an H shape, features two courtyards — one on each end of the H — that function as cooling devices and outdoor rooms in which to enjoy meals amidst blooming bougainvillea and a splashing fountain. A ramada (a wooden structure supported by posts) made of ocotillo harvested from the property offers another delightful space for relaxing or eating and provides shade for the home’s south faÃ§ade.
Twenty-inch-thick walls made of adobe bricks constructed on site (with manure added for viscosity and straw for structure) give Swan House its strength and stability. Because the onsite soil was caliche (a crust of calcium carbonate that forms on the stony soil of arid regions), it was necessary to bring in clayey soil to make the adobe. All of the rooms feature clay saltillo tile floors that provide a counterpoint for the adobe walls, except for the gallery, where smooth adobe floors are sealed with turpentine and linseed oil.
The H-shaped design divides the home into public and private spaces. One arm of the H holds the kitchen and dining room and the cozy TV room where Simone watches news from around the world; the other contains two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. Simone enjoys working in the long gallery — lit by four clerestory windows — that connects the two wings. The total living space, which includes the main house and separate guest quarters, is 1,600 square feet.
Swan House is off the grid. The lights, TV, DC electric refrigerator, well pump, swamp cooler/wall fan, telephone, and computer are powered by a twelve-panel solar photovoltaic system and a wind turbine. While Simone cooks with propane and uses it to heat hot water on demand, Swan House has no heat source other than passive solar. During the rare cold spell, she shrinks her needs and lives primarily in the TV room, which she heats with a propane gas heater.
“My house is a prototype,” Simone says. “We experimented as we went along. I went ahead on the strength of having studied with Hassan Fathy and built this house by the seat of my pants. I did it because I had to, which means anyone can.” Is she happy with the outcome? “I’m spoiled by living in an adobe house,” Simone says. “When you build a natural home, you can’t stand to live in anything else unless it’s an old, well-designed building or a new, well-built one.”
ENN would like to thank Natural Home Magazine for their permission to reprint this article.