Issue Date: March Design 2010, Posted On: 4/1/2010 

Tohono O'odham Assisted Living Elder Homes, Sells, Arizona

Thomas McQuillen, Principal Lizard Rock Designs, LLC

When Lizard Rock Designs, LLC, first approached the design process for Tohono O'odham Assisted Living Elder Homes, it was literally unlike anything the company had experienced before. That's because the Tohono O'odham-meaning “desert people”-are more than a single client to deal with. They are a nation.

“Many tribes operate on a consensus basis,” says Lee Olitzky, who as the facility's representative to the Tohono O'odham tribal board worked with Lizard Rock Designs on the Sells, Arizona-based project. “What it means is you don't move forward or backward or sideways in something until everyone has had their chance to voice their opinion and impressions.”

Thomas McQuillen, principal of Lizard Rock Designs, admits there was a significant learning curve involved in the process (which itself ended up being beneficial as he has gained listening skills that proved useful on other projects).

“When you're up in front of a client, the worst thing is to have silence,” McQuillen explains. “And a lot of times, Lee had to coach us to be quiet, and let everyone on the board express their opinions. We, as designers, interpret it as, ‘Oh, they don't like what we've come up with.’ But that wasn't what was happening.”

After the ice was broken with the tribal board's methods, McQuillen had a much larger obstacle to overcome. Given the massive rural locations that Native Americans inhabit, senior living has often been a disappointment for those elders who must move to distant cities after being outdoors their entire lives.

To ensure the Tohono O'odham, who don't isolate their elders, can interact with the residents without much travel, the Assisted Living Elder Homes are being built in a central location surrounded by many scattered villages of 50-75 people. Major community events will be held in the facility's oversized parking lots where tents can be set up for cookouts and other celebrations. The idea is that if the elders can't come to the villages, the villages will come to the elders.

The design of the facility is also opened up to allow for more than 180-degree views of the surrounding desert and mountain ranges, which are of significant importance to the Tohono O'odham.

“Their expectation is to spend as little time inside the house and as much time as possible outside the house,” Olitzky says. “These buildings are clustered with areas for residents to walk into the desert. Even the nursing home, which is adjacent to the assisted living property, note that their elders would literally walk 20 to 30 minutes into what we would think is the middle of nowhere in the desert, but it's what they are accustomed to.”

Thomas McQuillen                                                                                               Lee Olitzky

McQuillen says this project opened his eyes to not only the lives of the Tohono O'odham elderly, but also to the creativity that can be achieved when working outside his normal parameters.

“I was truly there to listen and respond to what they voiced they were trying to achieve,” he says. “I think that the surprising thing is that the result is more innovative than if we came into it and said, ‘OK, we're going to take all of our expertise and do the most cutting-edge thing we can think of.’ By not bringing preconceptions into it, we ended up with something that was more innovative than it would have been.” D