Great ideas that benefit others need to be shared, which is why a few creative budding architects are now working to build better communities.
A decade ago in rural western Alabama two Auburn University architecture professors conceived a strategy for improving rustic living conditions while imparting practical experience to those who would design and build these structures. Called The Rural Studio, the homes combined ingenuity and quirky regionalism to introduce students to the social responsibilities of architectural practices that would provide inspirational and well-constructed buildings through the use of materials previously classified as waste.
That idea and its fledgling bits of success spread, eventually coming to the attention of architect Hank Louis in Bluff, Utah, who quickly decided it would be his mission to create similar homes. He formed a nonprofit education entity known as DesignBuildBLUFF that conceptualizes and constructs affordable homes for Navajo families currently living in substandard dwellings and harsh weather conditions—howling sub-zero temperatures in the winter, drenching rains in spring, sweltering temperatures in the summer.
The group’s website says of its effort: “Compassion can be found in a CAD file” (CAD means computer-aided design) and notes that “more than 2.4 million Native Americans live on or near tribal land, facing some of the worst housing conditions in the country. More than 40 percent live in overcrowded or dilapidated housing with severely inadequate infrastructure services like water and sewer.”
“At DesignBuildBLUFF we give architecture students the chance to design and build a new home for a deserving Navajo family in Bluff, Utah,” the site reads. “They do this with a focus on sustainability and respect to the unique social, cultural and environmental needs of the region. Students are encouraged to explore alternative building methods, unique building materials and innovative solutions. It is, in a way, the ultimate sustainability—use of the elements naturally at hand, within reach, both physically and economically.” Each project is donated to a family that owns a valid land-lease.
The vision of the project, according to Louis, is humble and humanitarian: “We task our students to create harmony from some of the most disparate elements they will face in their careers—an unforgiving environment, nontraditional materials, a minuscule budget and an unyielding expectation to do good.” Many families have no indoor plumbing or electricity, their homes aren’t insulated, they have earthen floors and leaky roofs as well as cramped quarters and limited living space for multigenerational families.
Like creative packrats, the students take whatever they can scrounge and then work miracles—metal from a scrap yard to build the bread oven and firewood box: lumber scraps for retaining walls; refinished fencing for a rain screen; reused doors and windows recycled from Habitat for Humanity restoration efforts; scrap aluminum sheeting for the roof; scrap plastic for upper interior day-lighting partitions; reused kitchen cabinetry and recycled bails of cardboard and straw used for insulation and water absorption.
Although the focus is on building sustainable homes, the grander vision is to build the kind of architects the future deserves. “We’re building a better architect, not only experienced and professional, but compassionate,” says Louis.
Cindy Bithell participated as a student in 2009 and liked the concept so much she is now executive director of DesignBuildBLUFF. “Coming from an urban environment to living in a rural setting, you learn to
appreciate little things,” she says. “You learn to live with a bare minimum, and you develop problem-solving skills that allow you to think on your toes to find a solution…whatever the problem may be.”
According to Rachel Cusimano, graduate student at the University of Utah School of Architecture, building a residence called Little Water House helped her “let go of cultural biases and societal constraints with either a hammer or shovel in my hand. The small community of Bluff (some 320 residents) frees your mind of urban hustle and bustle and allows you to focus on not only what you are passionate about, but the root of that passion.”
Each project receives a name chosen by the students who work on it. Little Water House is a single-story, two-bedroom, one-bath home easily accessible to those with disabilities.
For Elise Mascitelli, master of architecture student at the University of Colorado the project was a chance for young aspiring architects to bring some positive change to the world via a hand-built residence for a Navajo woman and her five children. Living in a tent with howling winds and temperatures hovering in the upper teens, Mascitelli remembers the creative efforts as more than earning a grade: “The lines we drew on paper grew into something in which someone will live, changing both their lives—and ours—forever.”
Not only can these aspiring architects design and build, they can clearly express why they did it. The Raine House is on the reservation, near Montezuma Creek, Utah. “From the beginning of the Raine House project [from the nickname of the homeowner], there was a raw sense of purpose requiring collaboration, compromise and creativity,” says Lauren Peterson, a student at the University of Colorado Denver.
“There is something unbelievably satisfying about using your hands and watching a paper dream become a reality.”
Weather permitting, the goal is to build up to four homes each year. University of Colorado and University of Utah students build one to two houses annually, sometimes one each semester. “Not only are we building a more socially conscious architect, we’re studying their vernacular by introducing them to new ideas like passive solar [design] and energy efficiency,” Louis says. “We don’t just build homes, we build hope.”