Firm builds houses for Navajos
January 24, 2007
Architecture isn’t just something that provides a living for Parkite Hank Louis. His work also provides homes for Navajo Indians on a reservation in Bluff, Utah.
"Most everybody down there is on a list in order to get new housing," said Louis, the executive director and founder of DesignBuildBLUFF.
According to Louis, who also runs an architecture firm in Park City called Gigaplex; most people on the reservation live in huts with dirt floors.
"They are generally living in ramshackle places or old hogans, stuff like that," he said.
Those people are patiently waiting for single- or double-wide trailers provided by the reservation.
"They get on a list to wait for the (Red Mesa) Chapter (of the Navajo Nation) to drop a trailer off for them. Some of them have been waiting 15 or 20 years for a house."
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Of the approximately 3,000 people that live on the reservation, five or six of them are chosen to receive a trailer each year. The lucky few who receive one, Louis says, have to be in the right loop.
"It’s equally corrupt as the Anglo world," Louis said. "You don’t just rise on the list, you’re chosen if your brother-in-law is on the chapter. That’s what they face."
Louis recognized the need to speed up the process and developed a plan to help the housing situation by building homes in the area. DesignBuildBLUFF was formed in May of 2003 and it takes architecture students to the reservation to build homes with alternative methods and materials. The homes are then given to needy families.
"The program is for first-year graduate students at the University of Utah," Louis said. "This group of students, we go down to the reservation and interview 10 or so families and they select them based on criteria."
Louis said he has a partnership with Community Development Cooperation of Utah and they help select the families that receive homes. It is financed partly through a HUD grant.
Aside from providing needed shelter, the program also provides needed hands-on experience for students. Students move down to the reservation and help build and design the homes for a semester. Louis said the students are able to apply what they’ve been taught and learn to work as a team.
"It teaches the architecture students what happens when a line they draw on paper becomes real in three dimensions," Louis said. "They can’t just make a drawing and be finished with it and think that it’s over, because decisions are made in the field."
John Oderda, a student who worked there a year ago, said he benefited greatly from his experience.
"It’s definitely a really great learning experience," Oderda said. "Being there and able to help build it, you see the hands-on construction and design and how they influence the project."
The innovative materials and techniques used may benefit the student and the architecture world.
"It lets you experiment and try out technologies that aren’t existing in architecture today," Oderda said.
Oderda says it is important to keep experimenting with pioneering styles.
"It helps teach you to keep your mind open to building. Innovations are not as evident as they were 80 years ago."
"People have a mindset that what we have is pretty good," Oderda continued. "Experimentation is healthy for the whole profession. We shouldn’t accept status quo, we should push the limits."
The homes Louis and the students build probably "couldn’t get a building permit here," Louis admitted. But, the products go through structural tests and engineers make sure they are safe and functional. Everything is done in accordance with building codes.
Because there are no building permits on the reservation, the students are allowed to make mistakes.
"We can experiment and they can make mistakes," Louis said. "We have a presence there year-round so if there are any problems with any of the houses, we have a guy that will go out and fix them and help maintain the houses we built."
The houses use materials such as flex-crete that is built out of mud from the area, and adobe blocks. Aside from the materials, the architects are able to use their creativity to build something that never would fit into the cookie-cutter track homes.
"The configurations of the houses are certainly not rectangular," Louis said. "It’s fun and it’s easy to draw, but they really see how hard it is to but together the compound in the field."
Building homes and furthering architecture careers isn’t all the students take away from the experience, however. Oderda remembers eating dinner with a Navajo family and attending a birthday party.
"It pretty interesting how our two cultures intersected," Oderda said. "We had a really good relationship with the family we built a home for. It’s interesting how close we got to them."
In the last four years, Louis has observed many students come back with a similar cultural appreciation.
"There’s an interesting group dynamic," Louis said. "These students are from white-bread Salt Lake City and are thrown into a third-world. Now they are seeing people who are waiting 20 years for a house. They change quite a bit."
Louis said he is not able to provide septic systems and the people usually wait three years for that. The people there seem to be content to wait for unfulfilled promises.
"Water lines are promised and electricity is promised, yet they wait," Louis said. "They are not out there shaking the bushes to get these services. That’s a whole different way of looking at things.
"The family that needs the house gets one," Louis said, "that’s what we’re fairly proud of."