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.
Once the students move in, they have to get right to work — they have less than 4 months to finish designing the home and building it so the family can move in. Tasks and projects are divided up among various teams, and they work on everything from design optimization, to funding, material procurement, construction, and even interior decorating. The houses are certainly not elaborate, complicated nor richly furnished, but they are all beautiful and designed to function in the hot desert climate of Southern Utah. As you might suspect, solar passive design, natural ventilation, insulation, and energy and water efficiency play huge roles in the design of the homes.
Surprisingly though, each of the seven houses that have been built are completely different. Each year’s group of students seems intent on creating a home completely unique from the others. While they may utilize some of the information or ideas from previous homes, generally they are all new. For instance this year’s home, Studio 23, which was completed in the middle of May, is a combo straw bale/SIP home that uses reclaimed materials extensively. Previous homes include rammed earth, straw bale, and flex-crete construction. One of the groups even spent a whole semester building more student housing out of shipping containers — they fondly call them “Mantainers”, because the boys live there.
The latest home built on the reservation is a 1,400 sq foot two-story, two-bedroom home, which includes a one-story building close by that functions as a pottery studio. The residence is constructed using SIP panels and reclaimed barn wood for the exterior, while the studio is constructed with load-bearing straw bales and mud plaster. A photovoltaic system provides power for the home, rainwater is collected and a grey water system provides water for landscaping. A number of reclaimed materials were used throughout the house, including steel scrap on interior walls, an old door transformed into a desk, and an old car engine, which was repurposed into a sink for the studio.
Funding for the non-profit organization comes largely through private donations, along with a recent HUD grant, which will provide enough money to build three more houses on the reservation. Since the students are doing this for University credit, technically they pay to be there and provide free labor, which helps to make the houses super affordable. Additionally, many materials are donated from suppliers and reclaimed and scrap materials are used wherever possible to cut down on cost. With a budget of $50,000 for each house, the modestly sized homes generally cost less than $40/sq ft, which in comparison blows other University design/build programs budgets out of the water. Compare that to a green designed, off-grid prefab home for the Solar Decathlon with a budget closing in on $1 million or more. Louis says that the Solar Decathlon program produces some exciting homes and is really good for education, but thinks the money they spend on the houses is extravagant.
Upcoming for DBB and Hank Louis is an exciting expansion of the program, which will include the inclusion of two other universities. Starting next fall, the University of Colorado Denver will have it’s own semester in Bluff, designing and building a home for the reservation. This summer the U of Co group will select a family and start designing the home, and will spend the fall building the home. University of New Mexico Albuquerque is also interested in participating and they hope to take the summer semester to focus on prefab housing. The U of NM team will design and construct a prefab home during the spring semester of 2011 and transport and erect the home on site during the shorter summer semester. With the inclusion of the two other universities, the DBB program is transitioning into a year-round program, making better use of their facilities in Bluff and building even more sustainable houses for people who really need them.