Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico
Not far from where the Chama River meets the Rio Grande, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe, the Ohkay Owingeh—one of 19 federally recognized Native American Pueblo tribes in New Mexico—live on land they have inhabited for at least 600 years. For almost all of this history, daily life revolved around a series of plazas loosely delineated by attached adobe houses. This village center, known as Owe'neh Bupingeh, also served as the backdrop for the community's feast-day celebrations and ritual dances.
The 2,700-member tribe still considers Owe'neh Bupingeh the spiritual and cultural heart of the pueblo. However, in recent decades it had slowly depopulated and its condition deteriorated, as many residents left their traditional homes in favor of new, but nondescript, manufactured housing subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on subdivision-like lots elsewhere on the 16,000-acre reservation.
Now an unusual project is helping tribal members, who otherwise could not afford it, return to their ancestral homes. It is also allowing Ohkay Owingeh to restore its center, which is listed on the state and national registers of historic places, without creating a museum piece frozen in time. The core is “part of the life of the pueblo, and is in an ongoing state of transformation, as it has been for many centuries,” says Tony Atkin, a principal of Atkin Olshin Schade Architects (AOS), the Santa Fe– and Philadelphia-based firm working on the multiphase rejuvenation.
The project got its start in 2005 with a $7,500 grant from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division to train six high school students from the tribe in preservation documentation. By then, only about 25 of the historic core's 60 houses were occupied, and about half the structures were in poor condition or worse. Many had missing doors or windows, while others had vegetation growing on their roofs. In some, the character-defining and structurally essential vigas (beams roughly hewn from logs) were rotting, and in a few cases houses had completely collapsed.
Since 2010, general contractor Avanyu has completed the restoration of 20 houses, with the rehabilitation of nine more under way. In order to guide the construction process, AOS created a preservation plan, working closely with the client–the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority–as well as a group of tribal elders who served as cultural advisers. The document defines an approach that balances the sometimes conflicting requirements for funding, restoration standards, and the tribe's cultural values. And it provides a strategy for creating cost-effective and comfortable living environments.
The plan helps the project team make myriad decisions, including determining when modern materials and construction methods are appropriate. For example, the restored adobe houses include membrane roofs and metal parapet caps. The coping, painted to match the color of the mud plaster, alters the typically soft profile of adobe against the sky. However, it should greatly improve durability.
The work to date, including five years of planning plus replacement of the 25-acre core's utility infrastructure, has been financed with more than $8 million from foundations, the 2009 federal stimulus, and HUD grants, among others.
Homeowners with income below 50 to 60 percent of the county median qualified for the project's first three phases. Future phases will likely include families with income above this threshold. They will be eligible for low-interest loans to fund the renovations through the housing authority's community-development financial institution, or CDFI.
Ultimately, Ohkay Owingeh hopes to build 20 new homes on now-vacant but previously occupied lots. “The tribal council's vision for Owe'neh Bupingeh,” says Tomasita Duran, the housing authority's executive director, “is 100 percent occupancy.”
Phase 1/II – May 2012
Phase III - ongoing
Gross square footage:
Phase I/II – 27,202 square feet
Phase III – 10,998 square feet
Total construction cost:
Phase I/II - $3,128,927.12
Phase III - $1,958,600.45 (original contract value)
Owner: Various Homeowners
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