Decoding Design

DesignBuildBluff: Students design and build new homes for Navajo families

DesignBuildBluff: Students design and build new homes for Navajo families

Posting in Architecture

SmartPlanet talked to founder and Chairman of DesignBuildBluff, Hank Louis, about the challenges of designing off the grid, alternative building methods, and why the design build philosophy just may be the next wave in architecture.

More than 2.4 million Native Americans live on or close to tribal reservations, and over forty percent live in dilapidated or overcrowded housing where basic conveniences like water, power and plumbing are often severely insufficient.

A educational nonprofit based in Utah is taking the principles of design-build, where designers are involved in construction, to address the situation of housing on the Navajo reservation that straddles Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

Hank Louis, Founder and Chairman of DBB

DesignBuildBluff (DBB) gives architecture students at the University of Colorado and the University of Utah the opportunity to design and build new homes for Navajo families living in Bluff, Utah.

The students do all of the design work for a specific family, and the same students that do the designing do the building (hence the design-build name). The designs must focus on sustainability, and the houses must be 1000 square feet or less.

Inspired by the work of students at Auburn University from a class called Rural Studio that built houses in the Black Belt of Alabama, DBB is now in its twelfth year and on its sixteenth house.

Originally, DBB was part of the University of Utah, but three years ago, the organization became a nonprofit, and began looking for other universities to join in. The University of Colorado at Denver Graduate School of Architecture gladly became a partner.

SmartPlanet talked to founder and Chairman of DBB, Hank Louis about the challenges of designing off the grid, alternative building methods, and why the design build philosophy just may be the next wave in architecture.

The organization

The aim of DBB, Louis told us, is to teach architecture students the ramifications of what they are drawing on paper, and how things change in the field. "It's about how to put different materials together," he said, "and to experiment with alternative building methods. It's pretty much totally up to them how they want to build."

The added challenge is that the majority of the area is totally off the grid: no sewage, electricity or water.

Perhaps the most important part of the DBB mission, however: "students have to wake up and understand that there are millions of people in the United States that are without decent shelter. It shocks them to go down to the reservation and see how people are living here right in the US and on their back doorsteps."

The students meet with the families they are building for before they start drawing to talk about their concerns for their new home. "It's usually very minimal," said Louis. "The needs are usually very minimal, but we try to involve the families as much as possible."

Because the area is not very connected through the Internet, it's hard to keep them posted through the whole process. However, to try and combat this problem, students who are working on similar projects are divided into groups, and when the designs are finished, each family is shown two or three designs that they can choose from, involving them in decision-making.

Look to the past to better the present

So how does one design a house that's off the grid, rural, and in the high desert?

"What I always say is that people have been building homes in these areas for hundreds of years," said Louis. "Then, when cheap energy came about, people forgot all of these vernacular lessons. We look at vernacular building methods, natural ventilation, orientation, use the right apertures for windows, rocket stoves-- we just use obvious ideas. You can get 80 percent to having a really comfortable interior to your home this way, and when you add high tech at the end, like solar you can get 100 percent. These houses have no mechanical cooling and are 30 degrees cooler in the summer."

The low tech route, he said, is often the greenest. One ingenious cooling idea, borrowed from the Zion National Park Visitor Center, is a tower attached to the house that is open at the top on four sides. A small pump pushes water that dampens blankets that sit in front of the openings of the tower. When the wind comes, from whatever direction, the blankets dampen the breeze that is pushed down the tower into the house.

Most materials used come from the land. "You look at the 'res,' and you see a lot of dirt. You can use what's present, go around and find clay deposits, make bricks, use natural plasters."

Photovoltaic technology and solar panels as well as concrete floor heating systems are also used, when there is money or they are donated.

Students have the option of proposing new tech and recycled materials, and usually manufactures are more than happy to donate. However, it still has to be transported to a remote part of the country, which according to Louis goes against what DBB is trying to do-- but if the material works, it works.

Currently, the group is doing a lot of work with impermeable barriers and insulation-- DBB will record daily temperature fluctuations in each house to see how the houses are responding to different methods so the designs of the future can improve.

Design-build

The concept of design-build is central to DBB. "The idea for having a program like this," Louis told SmartPlanet, "is that design doesn't end with drawing. In architecture school, a lot of people learn that they architect is the designer and hands off the drawing to the contractor."

"If we had that attitude, the contractor would design the house. In the field, you find that things you thought were reality aren't. You have to be a little bit nimble and have a design sense when you are putting a house together, because you are changing things quite often. It just doesn't work that way. We are trying to show them the master builder technique. Design-build might even be the wave of the future. Design keeps happening and just never stops."

It is interesting to think about how green, vernacular, educational, and service-oriented architecture can all intersect. By teaching students how to be better, more compassionate designers, deserving families in an often disregarded region are also receiving adequate housing and an improved quality of life.

Images: Keith Carlsen Photography/ DBB

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure