Hogan’s Heroes

Traveling around southern Utah and northern Arizona, particularly in isolated areas, I’ve observed a wide variety of hogans (or hooghans), the primary traditional structure of the Navajo people.  When enjoying the Colorado Plateau, the older hogans seem very much a part of the natural landscape. 

Hogans (accent on the second syllable) come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Early versions had a circular floor plan, but more recent designs have been octagonal, all with the door facing east to welcome the rising sun.  There are two general type of hogans:  male and female.

The “male” hogan is typically smaller and is only used for sacred or private ceremonies.  The “female” hogan, the family home, is much larger.  In it, the children play, the women cook, weave, and talk, and the men tell stories.  Navajos used the circular design until the 1900s, when they started to make them in hexagonal and octagonal shapes.  The change in shape may have been due to the arrival of the railroad.  A supply of wooden cross-ties, which could be laid horizontally, allowed for larger, taller homes.

Last year on a visit to the Navajo Mountain corner of the reservation, I ran onto Silvia’s partially completed octagonal hogan, the exterior was complete but the interior still needed a lot of work.  The floor plan was very practical, being divided into two general living areas.  The front portion contained the kitchen, bathroom, and living room, and the back portion the bedrooms.  My colleagues and I helped complete the interior.  This spring, we plan to add indoor water and power.

The design of Silvia’s hogan caused us to wonder about possible “green” additions to the design.  Several other groups have had similar thoughts.  At Colorado University, Dennis Holloway (solar architect and prof) and Charles Cambridge (Navajo graduate student in anthropology) teamed up to work on home designs that were low-cost and energy efficient.  But most of all, the homes needed to be culturally appropriate.  Part of the current problem on the reservation, Holloway explained, was that their highly-valued traditional home, the hogan, had been ignored in government housing project.  The CU project developed a “green” home around the hogan concept.

In some respects, CU’s plans looked derivative of some of the designs I had seen outside of Taos NM, at Earthship.  Here the homes are constructed using earth for insulation, solar energy for electricity and heat, and water harvesting and recirculation.  Although the homes have fanciful exteriors, they are designed to be extremely water and energy efficient.  They  also use a lot of recycled materials (tires, enamelled steel plate, bottles, aluminum cans, etc.)

Another Navajo-related housing program is being carried out by DesignBuildBluff (an adjunct organization to the architecture program at the University of Utah).  Headquartered in Bluff, UT, this NGO constructs at least one home a year in the northern Navajo Nation, using architecture students for design and construction.  So far, four homes have been constructed.  Two are based somewhat on a traditional hogan design.  The Bluff portion of the operation is very ably ram-rodded by Mitch McComb.

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