Safe shelter is a basic human need. It provides protection from the weather, privacy for sleep, space for enjoying the company of family and friends. It is also the biggest investment a family will make in a lifetime, both in purchase price and maintenance. Most people cannot hire an architect to tailor a home to their needs, or afford a contractor to retrofit an existing home to green-building principles to fend off rising utility costs. That is particularly true in places where unemployment is high and median income is low, such as on the Navajo Nation.
But for 10 years now, in a quiet corner of the southeast Utah desert, Design Build Bluff has operated a program through the University of Utah that offers one solution to affordable-housing needs.
It is a rigorous studio course obliging architecture students to spend a year on-site while designing and building affordable housing for clients living near Bluff, Utah. As a result, nine families are living in new, secluded, architecturally inspiring homes, built on land so sacred no bank can ever take the shelter back and no real-estate company can ever sell the home.
Unknown to the students beforehand, their lives and careers may be forever changed by collaborating with cash-poor but culturally wealthy Navajo people, who offer place-based knowledge garnered by family members living on the same land for generations.
This invaluable contribution is at the core of the sustainable architecture found in the ecofriendly, contemporary and maintenance- manag eable custom homes built on inherited matrilineal Navajo land through the efforts of the student teams.
Hank Louis, adjunct professor at the University of Utah and principal architect of Gigaplex, in Park City, Utah, founded the program. Since its creation, hundreds of devoted students have participated, working alongside professionals and volunteers to achieve the clientdriven housing solution, while at the same time creating provocative structures aimed directly at the bull’s-eye of the human spirit.
The authentic learning curriculum he developed is the result of blending the need to provide a substantive design experience with the need to develop construction techniques within the limitations of a tiny budget.
Today the program has grown into a working model of affordable housing that is attracting more applications than available spaces in the program.
The reality of compromise
Students spend two extended studio blocks during the year living and working at the small Bluff campus, which is built even more modestly than the client homes. Dorms are made of retrofitted materials such as shipping crates roofed with greenhouse plastics and recycled construction timbers.
One set of two dormitory rooms housing four students was created with two red crates attached by a common area. The outside is covered in used, large-scale aluminum printing plates, stained with legible faint-blue printing ink layered like fish scales over the surface as a protective building siding.
When the students are not living and working in Bluff, they are back at the university campus studios designing the project, making corrections and accommodations to budget and client changes. Once the design phase is completed and approved, the material specification and acquisition begins, followed by the hard physical work of construction on the home site back near Bluff.
This is the moment when students face the reality of compromise. Project budgets are extremely restrictive. Bottom line on the latest home is $32,000 for a 1200-squarefoot home – for everything.
However, funding for the program has grown over the years, keeping pace with increasing material and finish costs. The program also relies on top-grade supplier con tributions from a long list of benefactors, including construction companies, fabricators and vendors, such as Big-D Construction, Burton Lumber, Allied Building Products, Cardall Insulation, Contempo Tile and Contractors Window Supply.
It’s a tough assignment to create beauty and function in a small space with complex client needs using the materials at hand. But the finished projects prove that a social and environmental consciousness is growing in the architectural profession and that universities are reaching out to connect with this trend.
Design-build is a method of project delivery in which one entity – the design-build team – works under a single contract with the project owner to provide design and construction services. One entity, one contract, one unified flow of work from initial concept through completion.
Three years ago the University of Colorado School of Architecture and Planning, located in downtown Denver, began considering the value of a design-build program. Louis gave them a proposal from Design Build Bluff and they accepted. Now, the CAP program is growing so fast that it, too, has more applicants than available space.
Rick Sommerfeld, professor at CAP, sees that the student experience is powerful enough to change the face of architecture in the future.
“Students are transferring the learning and social impact and the cultural awareness of the Bluff work into even the largest design firms,” he said. “They unanimously agree it is the most life-changing work they have ever done.”
According to Sommerfeld, most of today’s affordable-housing developments are lucky if they can stay at $120 per square foot. Even so, that is the low end of construction costs. “The reality is that they [the students] are building a $200-per-square-foot home for the client at $30 to $45 per square.”
The homes actually incorporate highend sustainable technology for site-specific passive heating, ventilation, air and cooling and green building materials. One of the nine completed DBB homes was built of rammed earth.
“That one wall alone would cost $50,000,” explained Sommerfeld. “A lot of what we use is labor-intensive technology, but the students are volunteering their labor, so it’s possible to build, even explore with sustainable principles in mind.”
The cost of elitism
In the past, architecture has been driven by the elitism of custom-design commercial, residential and public clientele. Large architectural firms grow larger still by delivering creative design solutions that increase the wealth and stature of their clients, guaranteeing repeat investments in custom architectural design and projects.
But today the industry is affected by concerns for the environment and housing affordability. There are now choices on most campuses to invest in pro-bono work that put project results and good design into the common grounds.
“We are seeing a shift in the type of student that comes to our program,” said Sommerfeld. “Social consciousness is there and an interest in questioning how they can make positive change and affect the lives of those who can’t afford the professional designer. I think the quality of our young people speaks well of our country these days.”
The on-site programs put students to work to improve living conditions while providing a hands-on experience in an architectural pedagogy.
“In reality, its success is measured by its effect upon the lives of the students, faculty, families and communities it touches,” Sommerfeld said. “It is not only the buildings that make the Rural Studio what it is, but also the education the students receive about architecture and about society. Ultimately, it is about ’sharing the sweat’ with the community.”
Loving the process
The client for the current DDB project, located south of Montezuma Creek, Utah, is a single mother with five children. She was selected from a list of 10 potential clients provided by the local Navajo chapter by the program directors and student team.
The initial intake phase began when the 22 students came to meet and interview her at the site where the family wants to locate their new home. The information became the basis of the design process, which was completed back in the university campus studio. This schematic design phase provided the client with presentation materials for input, collaboration and approval.
Mary Burns of Clovis, N.M., one of 14 women on the student architecture team, said she is loving the process.
“We finished the design phase and then came here to build. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we could change in the process, rework some of the solutions we arrived at in the studio. It’s like designing while you build. Some things work. Some don’t. In traditional training there’s a disconnect between learning and doing. This is the best.”
All the students pitch in to work 12-hour days pouring concrete for walls, slabs and foundations – exhausting work. Now, their work days are a little shorter, slightly less stressful, but filled with the constant attention to detail, the typical pressure and reality for a professional construction crew.
Most of the women students are learning how to use construction tools for the first time in their lives. Their favorite? The powerful, accurate “chop saw”!
Yet safe use of tools is the most serious lesson for them all. Back in the Bluff workshop, the first rule, hand-lettered on a sign posted near the goggles and wood clamps, instructs students firmly, “Absolutely no one works alone!” Home, sweet home
The home-site is crawling with organized progress. Teams up on ladders hammer together underlayment for the roofing. Another group lifts interior framing for a bathroom and bunk beds in the children’s bedroom. A young man operates the band saw, milling wood for joists, and power cables wriggle across the land from the generators to the students’ tools. Even in this preliminary stick-frame stage, the home is animated with energy, filled with youthful enthusiasm for the project and the family who will live in it.
The home looks expensive, but it has been built with only the $32,000 budget by using a collaborative design approach and contributions of new and up-cycled materials. A soaring, wide-open breezeway located in the middle of two winged halves of the home will be sheathed in glass and house the kitchen and dining area. It is the intersection of activity and function, the hearth, the place where children and elders will gather.
It is also fundamental that the students follow best-practice policies, including electrical and plumbing-code requirements.
“Even though we don’t have inspectors looking over our shoulders,” Sommerfeld explained, “that doesn’t mean the students cut corners. It is a valuable lesson in why the coding system exists and why it works.”
Poured concrete exterior bearing walls, insulated in the center core, reduce heat loss in winter. Windows are located to take full advantage of the prevailing breezes to help cool the interior during the summer.
“Some of us will be doing this level of sustainable architectural design and building in our careers after graduation,” Burns said, picking up a cross-cut saw. “It’s a different way of thinking about a logical process, to engage the client in this hands-on level.”
The process embraces the client family at all stages and, she said, “The family is incredibly receptive to our ideas and engages us completely by giving us honest feedback. It’s their home.”
Doing and understanding
On the website, Louis writes of his first exposure to a design-build program in Alabama in the early 1990s. “I saw a lot of hard work, students who had abandoned the comforts of campus and home for a cooperative life and the opportunity to learn about architecture through action. Most importantly, I felt a burgeoning awe emoting from all sides. I wanted in.”
After that, he founded his own program in Utah. Now, he said, “These small projects have in them the architectural essence to enchant us, to inspire us, and ultimately to elevate our profession.
“What I hope to impart is the veracity of the old Chinese proverb: I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand. Design Build Bluff is not a representation of reality, it is real in and of itself.”
The University of Colorado School of Architecture and Planning “Raine” home will be finished by December 2012. Students and faculty maintain a record on-line at their blog. To learn more about it and Design Build Bluff go to: www.designbuildbluff. org/
Sonja Horoshko can be reached at email@example.com.