Native Village 
Youth and Education News

January 1, 2013

Young architects build cutting-edge Navajo homes
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Utah: DesignBuildBLUFF builds cutting-edge homes for low-income Navajo families living in or near the southeast corner of Utah. The program has built more than a dozen custom-made homes designed by graduate architecture students on a shoestring budget.

DesignBuildBLUFF was founded in 2000 by Hank Louis, an adjunct architecture professor at the University of Utah. As a nonprofit, DBB "keeps the budget low so that the creativity comes out," Louis said.

An average home costs about
$150 per square foot to build, but DesignBuildBLUFF homes cost 30- $50 per square foot. The final construction cost is about $25,000. Donations by companies and groups also keep prices down.

DesignBuildBLUFF homes usually look like structures in architectural design magazine. Made from a medley of materials, each has a sense of rustic chic. Many details are created by clay or wood to reflect the Navajo use of earth tones.  And each home has an entry to the east, an age-old Navajo practice that honors the daily rising sun.

"Everyone has their own twist on the what the Navajo tradition is, even the Navajo," Louis said, noting that each home is different. Some are shaped like hogans, the traditional, octagonal Navajo homes. Others resemble single-wide trailers styled like a Frank Lloyd Wright tree house built on the ground.

On the inside, some have libraries, others dance areas, and many central fireplaces or stove areas. Outside, you can find recycled shelves, recycled mailboxes, and old printers' drums. Families' priorities such as space, efficiency, and style are taken into account by the students who design them.

"There's an immediate bond between the students and family," Louis said.

Most DBB students are from the University of Utah or University of Colorado. They need one entire semester just to learn design options for the rural desert Southwest. Students learn what Navajo families require and what materials to use without going over budget.

During the second semester, students live in Bluff and stay in a turn-of-the-century ranch home that Louis bought when he first started the venture.  Students see the home site, meet the family, and collaborate to build the house.

"It was the best educational experience I ever had," said Jen Lindley, who now works at an architecture firm. "It was the only time where I felt like I got a real, practical experience."

Most architectural students rarely get to leave the drawing board during college, Lindley said. That makes it hard to understand the working conditions and methods between contractors and workers

"I don't think I learned more in grad school than I learned in that entire semester," she said.

Most students who attend the non-traditional program consider it a rare, special experience. In the beginning, only eight students were enrolled in the DBB project. Now about 22 students -- the maximum number-- enroll during each semester.

Louis hopes to eventually reach out to universities in Arizona and New Mexico, the two other states that overlap with the Navajo Nation. He also hopes to expand on the reservation.

DesignBuildBLUFF just finished a home about a week ago, and it will start another in January. Eventually, the group hopes to build more than one home per semester.

"It changes every time," Louis said of the many homes he and his students have built.  Nor does he doesn't have a favorite home.

"It's like asking me to name my favorite child," he replied.


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