Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 3 October, 2011

Architecture students build green homes for Native Americans Read the
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Utah: Maxine Begay's new house sits in the high desert, surrounded by miles of red hills, yucca and creosote. The only man-made things in view are a plywood shack with broken-down cars and trash cluttering the front yard.

Begay grew up in that shack, and some family members still live there. Her relatives settled in this remote corner of the Navajo Nation about 50 years ago. None had ever seen a house like the one built last year for Begay and her 10-year-old son.

The walls of the elegant single-story structure are made of compressed earth. It's got a rooftop rainwater-capturing system, insulation made from recycled blue jeans, and a fireplace chimney that converts into a breeze-catching funnel.
 And you can't beat the price: nada.

"Oh my god, I love it," said Begay. "I'm so amazed at what they did."

"They" are the 22 students from DesignBuildBluff. The DBB program at the University of Utah brings architecture graduate students to the Navajo reservation to build sustainable homes for families in need.

"People ask me if it's a philosophy or a program," said Hank Louis, the professor who founded DesignBuildBluff.  "It's both."

Louis, 60, got the idea for DesignBuildBluff during a 1998 visit to the tiny town of Bluff. He was shocked at the conditions on the reservation; about half of its 180,000 residents live below the poverty line, and many homes have no running water or electricity.

"They're in as dire straits as any Third World country I've visited," Louis said.

DesignBuildBluff launched 8 years ago and has already built 11 homes. It runs on a shoestring budget of outside funding  and donated lumber, building supplies and other materials.  But with only $25,000 -- $50,000 to build each home, students must get creative. 

"We just scrounge," said Ashley Thompson, a 23-year-old architecture student. "It's completely different from regular class and studio work. I've learned more here than I did in four years as an undergrad."

The students spend a semester designing the houses, then spend the next semester building them on Louis's five-acre compound in Bluff.

Students from the University of Colorado are now being accepted into DesignBuildBluff. Louis hopes DBB will become a  a year-round operation with participants from other universities.

"Last year we built two houses, and we hope to do four this year," he said. "But we'd need to do 50 a year to even put a dent in the need on the reservation."

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