Global Homes

What if you had to build a house out of what you could find nearby? What materials would you use? How would you design your home to fit your lifestyle - not to mention the local weather conditions? Here are some interesting examples of how clever native architects around the world solved their housing problems.


Northern Siberia has a very harsh climate. Winter brings strong winds, severe cold, and snow. Summers aren't a whole lot better. Many ethnic groups live here, though, and several of them - including the Dolgans - traditionally herd reindeer.

As the reindeer are moved from spot to spot in search of grazing land (did you know that reindeer love mushrooms?), the herders bring their homes with them. In summer they use tents, but in the winter they began using huts set on runners and pulled by teams of two to four reindeer.

Igor Krupnik is a research anthropologist with the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He says the early 20th-century balock (a Russian word) or "sled-choom" (choom is a Siberian word for skin-covered conical tent) looks like a small cabin. They have a wooden, rectangular frame that's attached to a special sled. The frame is first covered with cloth, then reindeer skin, then a canvas outer cover to protect the skin from moisture. It has small windows and a wood-burning stove.

Balocks are small: about 10 feet by 5 feet for a small family, and 30 feet by 6-1/2 feet for a large one. They were first used by Russian settlers to the Taymyr region. In the early 1900s, the Dolgans saw that sled-chooms would work well in winter.

Families moved into the balock from the portable summer tents in late October, when the snow cover was fully in place. They returned to their tents in May, after the reindeer calving season.

The balocks were usually left at storage sites while people moved farther north with their tents and herds to summer pasture and hunting and fishing grounds.

According to Dr. Krupnik, some Dolgans who herd reindeer still live in balocks. But it's such strenuous work to pull them, and the weather is often so extreme, that after a reindeer team has pulled a balock 10 kilometers (6 miles), the animals have to rest up for a full week.


For hundreds of years, the Inuit (native people) of eastern Canada and Greenland built igloos for both permanent and temporary shelter. Have you ever built a house out of snow? Well, I bet you never got it so snug that the temperature inside it was 60 degrees F.! Skilled Inuit can.

Inuit searched snowfields for the perfect type of snow - not drifts, but flat layers of hard-packed snow. Then they drew a circle in the snow that was from 9 to 15 feet in diameter. With long knives, they cut angled snow blocks from within the circle and stacked them so the walls spiraled inward. This makes the walls stronger.

A narrow doorway is left - just large enough for a person to get through, but too small for a polar bear. Soft snow is packed into the cracks to keep out the wind.

Skilled builders can make an igloo in about an hour. If the igloo is to be a more permanent dwelling, small, translucent windows are added, made of seal intestines or sheets of freshwater ice.

Igloos heated up from a combination of body heat and warmth from oil lamps and small stoves (a hole in the top of the igloo let smoke escape). The heat slowly changed the snow walls to ice within a few weeks. Once it was ice, the igloo was so strong that someone could stand on top of it and it wouldn't break.


In the 1800s, the United States government gave free plots of land to anyone willing to build a house on it and live there for five years. The land was in the Midwest and West. The people who settled the land were called homesteaders.

Trees from which to build cabins were in short supply on the prairie, though. So homesteaders used what they had in abundance: the turf, or sod. You've heard the word "sodbusters"? They were called that because they had to "bust" through the sod to reach soil suitable to farm.

To build a sod house, or "soddie," homesteaders first cut sod "bricks" two feet long, one foot wide, and four inches deep. Once the site was chosen, the settler began stacking bricks.

The walls were two or three bricks thick. The grass and roots quickly intertwined, locking the bricks together. Holes were left for windows and doors, which were later brought from the nearest town. With what little wood was available, a gable roof was framed in, to be covered with tarpaper and more sod.

When it rained hard, a soddie's roof might become saturated and leak for days - even after the rain had stopped. Stretched-muslin "ceilings" caught whatever might fall through the roof when it wasn't raining. Centipedes, ants, mice, and snakes were uninvited guests. Inside walls were whitewashed to lighten the interior, and stoves that burned cow chips - dung - were used for cooking. (Not much wood, remember?)

Thick walls made soddies warm in winter and cool in summer, though.

Few soddies are left on the prairie today. As the only structures for miles around, the corners of a sod house attracted cows looking for a place to scratch an itch. Eventually, the walls would collapse from all that rubbing, and the sod ended up back on the ground, right where it had come from.


For the past thousand years, Mongolian herders in Asia have used large circular tents (16 to 30 feet in diameter) called yurts as their movable homes. Herders move hundreds of miles each year looking for fresh pasture for their sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and yaks. Because they're on the move so often, they must be able to take their homes with them. Mongolian herders live in a landscape of high desert plains and treeless mountains, where it can be warm during the day but very cold and windy at night.

Yurts are made from wood and felt. A round wooden roof ring braced with wooden rafters forms the top of the yurt frame, which sits atop a lattice framework that looks like a giant baby gate. The latticework walls are about four feet tall. Panels made of wool felt and secured with ropes cover the entire structure to block the wind. The wood is cut from trees that grow in the river valleys.

Herdsmen furnish their yurts with beds, chests of household goods, and a small iron stove for cooking and heating. Rugs cover the floor for warmth. Beds placed along the sides leave the center of the floor clear for the stove.

Herders may erect yurts near each other to create temporary yurt "villages." When it's time to move, they pack up their yurts. Lattice walls are rolled up in sections, and rafters are bundled. The yurts are transported by camel or on a travois pulled by horses. (A travois is a platform supported by two poles, the ends of which drag on the ground.)

After finding the next grazing spot, the herdsmen seek flat ground (sheltered, if possible). In an hour they reconstruct their yurts, which can serve as home for a night or several months.

Adobe Abodes

In 1888, in a region now known as the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet), two ranchers set out in search of cattle that had wandered. What they found instead were curious cliff dwellings, now called Mesa Verde. Tucked underneath massive overhangs, these blocky houses ranged in size from one room to vast apartment buildings with hundreds of rooms. The Anasazi, ancient native Americans who lived in the region from 100 BC to AD 1600, built these particular pueblos. Today, "pueblo" can mean a flat-topped stone or adobe dwelling, the people who live in these dwellings (Pueblo Indians), or a village of adobe houses.

The Anasazi (it means "ancient enemy" in Navajo) were farmers who grew corn. They built pueblos in the sides of sandstone cliffs, on the tops of mesas and plateaus, and even in narrow canyons. The earliest pueblos had walls of flat stones held together with small chips or a cement of lime and gravel. Adobe (sun-dried mud bricks) was used later. Pueblo floors were made of stone slabs or adobe. Roofs were built in layers of wooden joists, dead branches, leafy branches, and pressed earth.

The oldest pueblos have no windows or doors, which probably kept them warm in winter and cool in summer. Entering a pueblo meant climbing a ladder, pulling the ladder onto the roof (so your enemies couldn't get into your house), then entering through a trapdoor cut into the flat roof. Pueblos were set around a central plaza containing a kiva, a semi-underground circular room used for religious ceremonies.

By 1600, the Anasazi pueblos were abandoned. Archaeologists don't know why the Anasazi left. It might have been a combination of things, including a prolonged drought, enemy raids, and the attraction of a new religion to the south.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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