Adobe Transformation: Renovating Two Old, Ugly Houses

When they bought their Arizona property twenty years ago, authors and activists Athena and Bill Steen found themselves stuck with two old, ugly houses they didn’t want. Renovating the homes has changed their lives—and those of countless others.

| September/October 2004

  • Athena and Bill’s property in 1984.
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
  • A straw bale wall is finished with lime plaster colored with copper sulfate
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
  • Bill and Athena Steen.
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
  • This 350-square-foot cottage was constructed during a Canelo Project workshop.
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
  • Interior walls adorned with highly polished orange clay and lime plaster with purple fresco color
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
  • Seats are made from straw bales covered with lime plaster
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
  • Lime plaster carved and frescoed with ultramarine blue pigment.
    Photography By Athena and Bill Steen

What happens when the property you fall in love with (after an exhaustive search) has two old, awful-looking adobe buildings that total 3,500 square feet? And what if these buildings are in such bad condition that zero value has been placed on them? That’s exactly the problem we faced when we bought our Arizona acreage two decades ago. Our first thought was to tear the buildings down; restoring them seemed absurd. But life is full of surprises.

The cheapest demolition estimate we received was $20,000, and the houses were located so that it was impossible to divide the property and sell them. Our only option, it seemed, was to fix them up just enough to make them livable until we could build a “real” or more serious house. Then, about halfway through the initial remodeling—as we realized the process was costing more than anticipated—it became apparent that we would be confined to these old buildings for some time. And so began a journey that has shaped our lives.

Twenty years later we’re still living in those old buildings, and it would be accurate to say that our lives have been “built” around them. Had we initially accepted what had been given to us, the early years might have been easier, but we were constantly preoccupied with thoughts of all the ways we wished things were. To begin with, the houses were much larger than we needed, and they were extremely hard to heat during cold winter nights. In addition, they were poorly sited, making adequate solar gain difficult.

Some of those problems still linger, but as we’ve come to know these buildings, this place, and the history of those who lived here before us, we’ve come to treasure what we once fought so desperately. Looking back, we can honestly say that life has given us exactly what we needed. We’ve learned a lot about trust, acceptance, and the struggle that can happen when one’s images about “how life oughta be” conflict with what life has given.

Building appreciation

A deeper look into the old dwellings revealed they were built mostly of adobe and that with a little vision, they could be quite decent and attractive. The old walls had a lot of history, and as we learned the stories of how they had been built, we became increasingly appreciative. Our land had originally been a Mexican homestead growing the traditional Southwestern crops of corn, squash, melons, and beans, supplemented by an orchard of apples, pears, and quince. When the ownership changed in the 1930s to an alternative-minded couple from northern California, the property became a retreat for their friends, including celebrated Zen writer Alan Watts. We started with a lot of basic improvements to make the buildings livable: adding a room to the main house, replacing and changing locations of doors and windows, altering traffic patterns, repairing the roofs, upgrading wiring, unifying plaster and paint surfaces, and tiling the kitchen and bathrooms.

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