Make your own free website on



The drawings for these notes are underscaled for a 20 foot lodge and shouldn't be used as a guide in any case. Take your measurements from the people in the group, the most important being the vertical clearance of the ledge's backrest to give good headroom for sitting.

To get a sense of the scale of this space. And pace off ten feet on the floor. It is a pretty big circle, there, in the lower pit. These dimensions describe a structure almost exactly as detailed by Ishi. He said this dwelling was used by a couple with children, sometimes with a grandmother and grandfather. He said they lived, cooked, ate and slept there. The Indian Tales book describes alot of outdoor living and sleeping as well.

Dutch Flat Lodge Design
* this beam is called the "Boy" rafter in the Modesse Ceremonial Lodge, Pit River, California

Prevailing winds are generally from the west, so the west side of a dwelling is the windward side and the east side is the downwind or lee side. Of the five structures described by C. Hart Merriam, three face the vent to the east, one to the north, one to the south, but none face directly west toward the wind. It could be that the north and south facing structures are following a rule about prevailing winds which could vary due to terrain. I assume that it would be disruptive to have wind flowing directly down the vent. "The Indian Tipi" by the Laubins directs the reader to face the door of the tipi to the east partly because it is the lee side of the structure. Ishi does not mention orientation, nor does Indian Tales. Both the tipi we made earlier and our lodge had the door and vent to the east and it worked beautifully.

Note that the ridge pole in the "Indian Tales" drawing is not steeply pitched. This makes a more stabile resting place for rafters, which otherwise don't stay put during construction. Also, the mild slope is a more natural hill shape.

Click drawing to see photo.
Earth Lodge Crew In Lower Pit Circle

Eleven Berkeley high school students and two leaders took six days to complete the lodge. We are sitting in the unfinished lower pit. The ledge behind us is at ground level (the mistake). The mound of loose earth around the ledge is dirt from the lower pit. If we had sunk both pit levels below ground it might have taken us four or five days to finish.


Ridge Pole - Rafter Articulation
The Center Post is notched to accept the Ridge Pole.

The Ridge Pole gets a lengthwise notch at the tip, to accept the Center End Pole (or "Boy" rafter) at the west end of the lodge. The squared off tip of the Center End Pole is cut down to allow room for the ribs that cross over the top of the Center Post.

Detail Of "Boy" Rafter
(see arrow)

Looking east Looking west

The first, central, rib that borders the west side of the smoke hole has extra duty. It should not be notched for the smoke hole cross piece. If it has to be notched it should be doubled up. Otherwise, the cross piece can be supported by leaving a branch stub at that point of the rib.

Note second beam for smoke hole

Cross piece

End view of ridge pole

A single beam is enough if it is not notched for the smoke hole cross piece.

Beam is weakened if notched for smoke hole
Beam braced with branch support is stronger

Don't know where I got 4 or 5 inches. The Ishi notes say, "...banked with dirt to a distance of 3 or 4 feet for added warmth." I would think that 3 or 4 feet of earth on top would cave the roof in. The work "banked" sounds more like they are talking about buttressiing from the side, sort of like the picture in "Indian Tales" which is largely above ground with heavy side walls of earth.

Ideas for the composite design of the Dutch Flat lodge. The Ishi description of the family dwelling comes closest to what we did. Then came the ideas of the Indian Tales lodge and, perhaps, the side view of the Modesse lodge reinforced the Ishi description of a pit with a ledge.



Dutch Flat
20 ft.

18 ft.

Indian Tales
shown at 58 ft.

55 ft.

The Ishi lodge is much like ours. The others are huge by comparison. Dutch Flat was built by 13 people with steel tools (and large cooking pots to carry dirt) in 6 days. The Modesse was built by 230 people with simple tools (and baskets to carry dirt) in 6 months.

Ishi Earth Lodge
A diagram illustrating the Ishi description of an 18 to 20 foot family lodge with seperate ladder post. The ledge is at ground level.

The Ishi lodge is shown with dotted lines because the number of center posts was not given. It shows the mound ring set up at ground level. It is about 20 feet wide inside- much like ours- and is roughly 10 feet high- abit higher than ours. It is described as a dwelling for a family with children and, perhaps, two grandparents.

It is described as a conical form, which threw me off at first. I drew something with steep sides, more like the form of a hogan. Then I realized that- though ours is a low crowning form- it is definately conical.




Modesse Ceremonial House
These are diagrams of the Modesse Ceremonial House based on drawings by C. H. Merriam. Note that the weight of the large rafters is shared by two ridge poles.

Information on the Modesse came from a manuscript by C. Hart Merriam, found in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at U.C. Berkeley. There are inconsistencies in the scale indicator of the drawings and in the descriptive text. The end of the article gives the height of the center post as 10 to12 feet. The post as about 2 feet thick, and the length of the structure roughly 55 feet.


View of single pit and wide ledge at ground level.

View of log walls which show from outside.

Wooden Walls
The text on the Modesse describes wooden walls of stacked logs, two or three high. The side view seems to indicate that the rafters on the north end touch the ground in the traditional manner. (The transition between the two methods is not described.)

It is unusual to build a lodge with a single pit and a wooden wall with the roof resting on the wall, instead of directly on the ground. Perhaps they had a windfall of logs floating down the river after extended heavy rains. (This happens in Santa Cruz periodically.) They may have decided that using ready-felled wood was less work than digging a double pit. Also, the ledge of this structure is perhaps 7 feet wide. Digging to get the ledge underground would have displaced perhaps twice as much earth as the single-level, central pit.
The smoke hole is the main entrance, as usual, even though the southern door/vent is at ground level. This vent is only 2 1/2 feet in diameter.

The Merriam text has details on the construction of the Modesse lodge. It was built with a team of 230 men and women, with tasks divided into tree felling, timber splitting, timber carrying, excavation, and construction. There were also hunting, fishing, and cooking crews to feed the team. Tree felling was done with elk horn chisels. The work took, perhaps, six months, described as starting in the spring and not finishing until fall.

Indian Tales
This is a diagram of the beautiful drawing by Jaime de Angulo in "Indian Tales". The grey areas are the mounds he described to build up the walls above ground level. This represents alot of earth, given the large size of the pit.

The inside space of the Indian Tales lodge is roughly three times the height of the fork in the drawing, which is given as 3 to 4 times a man's hieght. Figuring 5 foot 6 inches as a man's height, the fork of the center post is 16 1/2 to 22 feet high. This makes the inner space roughly 50 to 65 feet wide.

Steps and Ladders
The ridge pole in the Indian Tales house rests 16 to 22 feet high in the fork of the center post. Perhaps a ladder is used in this lodge because of the girth and height of the center post. Also the high center post could be a factor that would make a ladder preferable for safety. The Modesse solution to this was to attatch ladder rungs to the center post (instead of cutting the steps into the log) but without nails, bolts or ready-made rope, this might have been a tall order.

Our center post was only 10 or 11 inches thick so we could get our arms around it to help climb down into the lodge. It was also only 7 or 8 feet high.

The Indian Tales drawing shows a ladder as we would know one. Ishi describes a "ladder post" that sticks out of the smoke hole.

Nowadays you can't pick and choose freely for land. It could happen that you had only one possibility and- in that spot- you hit rock too soon. There are shallow forms that could serve as alternates:

Be sure the back rest is deep enough for good headroom but the roof does give you headroom above the ground level between the radial beams.

Copyright 2002, Don Cochrane