Desert Serenity: An Off-Grid Adobe Home in West Texas

A sustainability pioneer builds adobe homes in the Texas desert and has founded a nonprofit to teach others how.

| November/December 2004

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 also founded a nonprofit—the Adobe Alliance—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 1970s 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. In1972 when 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 studied architecture with Fathy, visited his projects, assisted him with translations, and helped 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.

Common ground

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 far away Egypt, agriculture was once a mainstay of Presidio’s economy. However, landowners sold their water rights to El Paso, so Presidio now, 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, she 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

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