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Cliff Dwellings

Cliff dwellings (the stone villages that occupied huge shelves on canyon walls) are the cornerstone of Anasazi architecture. Before there was much knowledge about the occupants of locations such as Mesa Verde, the builders of these ancient dwellings were referred to simply as "cliff dwellers." These are the most impressive examples of Anasazi architecture, but they represent under 10-percent of Anasazi dwellings constructed between 1200 BC and the end of the Anasazi period circa 1300 AD.

Charles Nystrom's Modern Cliff House

Nestled facing southwest in Mesozoic sandstone is a cliff dwelling of the twentieth century. Charles Nystrom has a rock-sheltered house (pictured above) that gives him protection from the temperature extremes of the climate in the high desert. It also suits his individual spirituality.

A friend had suggested the idea of a modern cliff dwelling to Nystrom and he simply couldn't put it out of his mind. He researched cliff and cave houses for five years so that he could develop a proper design. It needed to combine efficiency, security and brightness, while still showing the look of the earliest cliff dwellings. When he retired from his contracting business in 1976, he put his ideas into stone - literally.

On his property, no natural openings existed that would give him enough room for his home. A demolitions expert for a mining company blasted out rock - slowly - and it took two months to open a suitable sized hole in the rock.

After the excavation had been completed, the three story, 1920-square foot interior was less difficult to build than an open floor plan house. Cave houses only need protection from the weather on the exposed side, so Nystrom didn't have to insulate the ceiling, floor or walls.

The portion of the home that he constructed was made with 2 X 4 stud walls on a 16 inch center. It has plywood on its outside and drywall inside. An air space surrounds the walls, from two to three feet wide, and the floor and ceiling as well, so that plumbing, ducting and electrical connections could be installed and serviced as needed.

Ancient Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico

Nystrom wasn't sure if humidity would represent issues in his cliff dwelling. But the surrounding sandstone was porous, and he installed a vapor barrier between wall and rock, and this has been sufficient to prevent any problems.

His home also has closets, bureaus and cabinets recessed into that dead air space that surrounds the walls. So, the interior is uncluttered, leaving lots of floor space that would not be attainable with conventional construction methods.

Cliff dwellings offer savings in labor and materials, so the cost for a structure of this type is roughly the same as it would be for a conventional home, built to high quality standards. Nystrom hopes to improve the technique cost by using hydraulic mining methods to make the "holes" for houses.

The construction of a cliff dwelling could be done by a modern building contractor or a very skilled do-it-yourselfer. Once the hole has been prepared, the rest of the construction is not as complicated as building a standard home.

House Built into a Cliff

Nystrom's house pays off when it comes to utility bills. His average cooling and heating expense in the western Colorado slope area is only 34 cents a day, or roughly $125 a year. This is about 1/10th of what it costs for an average tract home.

The electricity that he consumes serves a heat pump, which Nystrom has installed on a meter of its own, so that he can track his home's ultra-efficient energy usage.


From ancient times, to modern, cliff dwellings are starting to make a comeback in the alternative living circles.

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