Upon returning home from Yemen, where political uprisings canceled the Mud, Stone and Shale conference she’d planned to attend, Simone Swan writes: “We are yet in another desert in a most harmonious atmosphere, no other structure in sight but my hand-built vaulted and domed mud brick house with its two courtyards. It has not rained one drop for six months here on the Texas-Mexican border. Because of the drought and unseasonal frosts, little is in bloom. I am blessed with the soft voices of students and interns, with silence, with the hum of bees in the hesitantly flowering creosote bushes, but miss the muezzin's punctual call to prayer, and the sound of spoken Arabic.”
Simone’s home is as far off the grid as you get in this country, beyond West Texas and well past fashionable Marfa. With wide, sweeping views of Mexico’s Sierra Rica and the Chinati range, these 500 acres are a place of raw, stunning beauty, with architecture to match. Simone learned about building with mud from Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, whose empowerment of people through adobe building inspired her to found the Adobe Alliance. Adobe is political, Simone believes. “As building materials rise even higher in cost than in this first decade of the 21st century; as industrial materials' toxicity is perceived, as their cost of transportation increases with the price of fuels; as the climatic comfort and salubriousness of adobe walls are discovered, more budget-conscious dwellers will be drawn to the material,” she predicts.
Simone was drawn to Presidio, Texas, for its solid earthen building tradition, and she felt comfortable with its similarities to Egypt, where she’d spent many years. Sitting at the confluence of the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande rivers, this fertile little crescent in the Chihuahuan desert was an agricultural land of plenty until landowners sold water rights to El Paso. Like many parts of rural Egypt, the area is now beset by high unemployment and significant poverty.
Through the Adobe Alliance, Simone aims to build low-cost, energy-efficient housing for desert dwellers. Her home is part of her continuing inquiry into mud building techniques, breathable plasters and natural cooling. Built for $50 a square foot in 1998, the H-shaped structure is made from 20-inch thick adobe bricks (with manure added for viscosity), handcrafted just across the border in Ojinaga, Mexico. Two courtyards function as cooling devices, and a long gallery is lit by four clerestory windows. “I wanted the house to have sheltered spaces as well as two roofless spaces because a courtyard in the desert is like an air conditioner,” Simone explains. On summer mornings, sunlight blasts the cool air that sinks into the courtyards overnight, creating eddies that move the cool air into the house through French doors. Once the cool air is inside, Simone shuts the doors and windows to keep it there. “This only works when adobe walls are plastered with a material that breathes, such as lime or a mud plaster,” she warns.
Powered by a 12-panel solar photovoltaic system and a wind turbine, the home is heated by the sun. “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.”
I’m not sure I could build this on my own. But sitting in the cool shade of Simone’s ramada, looking out at her meditation hut’s deep purple Nubian dome, I felt privileged that she did. I would love to be back among the hesitantly flowering creosote bushes, basking in Simone’s wisdom. Hers is a place of peace.
Simone Swan says adobe is political. Photo by Terrence Moore
Two vaults frame the west patio, which has a fountain, date tree and bougainvillea. A palm-frond roof covers the carport. Photo by Terrence Moore
Simone wakes up in her bed made from adobe bricks and looks through French doors onto the patio and six tiers of the Mexican Sierras. The bedroom ceiling is 14 feet high. (This is one of the most amazing bedrooms I've ever been in.) Photo by Terrence Moore
The walls are covered with breathable natural plaster, and the floors are clay saltillo, which keeps the home cool. This bed carved out of one piece of wood is from the Ivory Coast. Photo by Terrence Moore
In the gallery, 20-inch-thick earth-plastered adobe walls glow softly as light streams in from French doors on three sides and clerestory windows on the east wall. Peeled vigas (beams) support the roof—topped by an observation deck—while multiple coats of turpentine and linseed oil bring a soft matte finish to the smooth adobe floors. Patios on either side of the gallery are used as roofless rooms. Photo by Terrence Moore
Handmade wooden cabinets, constructed on site, hold pots and pans in Simone's spacious, light kitchen. From the window over the sink she looks out at the wildlife and, beyond that, south toward Mexico. Photo by Terrence Moore
The guest bedroom’s east-facing porthole accommodates sunrise watching. Photo by Terrence Moore
The ramada features a thatched roof that the work crew built from ocotillo cactus harvested from Simone's 500-acre property. The ramada provides shade for the home's south façade. Photo by Terrence Moore
Simone’s meditation space, or capilla (chapel) also serves as a guest room and holds two beds, a desk and a chair. Inside, Simone says, “it’s a sanctuary, like being enveloped in a womb.” Photo by Terrence Moore