Each spring, Hank Louis takes a team of 22 University of Utah architecture grad students down to Bluff, Utah, where they live for the semester to build a home for someone on the nearby Navajo Nation. But long before they settle into their 1905 historic home and shipping container student housing for the semester, they spend the fall selecting from a long list of families in need and designing their new dream home. The students then work closely with the family to design and build a home that will work for them and their needs. And it just so happens that all of the homes are affordable, low-maintenance, usually made with reclaimed materials, sustainable, and totally off-grid.
Louis started the design/build program back in 2000 as a way to help students in the School of Architecture get some hands-on experience building. After a number of successful smaller design projects in Salt Lake and Park City, the program expanded to build a full-size house in a semester-long immersion. Louis chose Bluff, Utah and the nearby Navajo Reservation as his project location for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, he knew there were many people there in need of housing. Second, since the Navajo Reservation already owns all the land within its boundaries, the cost to build a home would be far less because it wouldn’t include the cost of land. And finally, Louis also figured there would be less red tape to cut through getting approval for innovative design strategies, which would likely meet stronger resistance in conservative Utah.