Architects: DesignBuildBLUFF Studio
Location: Navajo Reservation, Utah
Architect: DesignBuildBLUFF Studio
Client: Suzie Whitehorse
Project Year: 2009
Photographs: Unknown photographer
From the architect. DesignBuildBLUFF is a non-profit organization that builds environmentally sustainable homes in the Navajo Nation. Their work introduces first-year graduate students in architecture to the culture and history of Utah’s desert southeast, where they design, and ultimately build a home for a Navajo Family. DesignBuildBLUFF seeks to engage its constituents--students, volunteers, staff, in the realization that architecture can provide unparalleled personal enrichment and quality of life. Our projects incorporate salvaged and found materials, modern technologies, and traditional building methods. Calloused hands, engaged minds, and open hearts align with resourcefulness and ingenuity to create a home for some of the last people to expect it.
On the Navajo Reservation in southern Utah, Suzie Whitehorse lives with her four children in a Hogan, a traditional American Indian-style home. The 44-year-old woman managed to escape with her children from an alcoholic husband but can’t find a job and does all her cooking and cleaning in the 15-foot wide dome-shaped hut. She is cramped in there with beds, a small stove and refrigerator. However, thanks to the work of 18 graduate students from the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning, Whitehorse will be getting a home for herself and her four children.
“Right sized”, a home less than 1,000 square feet. The most sustainable building resource on the Navajo Reservation is earth. Hence, the idea to build a “rocket stove”, which burns kindling size pieces of wood, provides a heating “stove’ atop a 55 gallon barrel in line with the 20 feet of flue which heats a “cob” bench, which in turn thermally heats the home. Moreover, the idea has proven to be the primary heating source for the entire home, nearly rendering unnecessary the in-floor radiant heating, which itself begins with vertically-oriented solar hot water panels that provide the south wall of a shed harboring the hot water reservoirs.
So, mere kindling the size of wood shims provide the family of five comfort during the brutally cold high desert winters. Enough “cob” -- clay, sand, straw and water -- was produced purely by heart and hand (and feet, boot-crushing tenacious clumps of hand-and-shovel harvested clumps of clay) by a three-man team to cover the hand-made compressed earth bricks built up to correctly position all of the hand-made (on-site, student-welded) components -- combustion cylinder, clean-out chambers, lids and insulated handles, the aforementioned drum and interior cylinder leading to the horizontally winding flue. Decidedly low-tech, quasi-vernacular and eminently scalable. There is no HVAC system -- really no mechanical system whatsoever, just the sun and a little bit of wood, and the breeze.
The overriding aesthetic intent was inspired by the vernacular pole barn. Additionally, accidentally, there exists a second iconography to the innately cultural hogan on the Navajo Reservation, namely the single-wide trailer, much more architecturally provoking in it’s simplicity and adaptability to the east/west elongated rectangle which provides a longer south-facing aspect for glazing and low-tech, vernacular passive solar orientation. The raised house allows the ubiquitous ‘blow-sand’ to pass beneath it, rather than quickly pile up alongside. Interestingly, the air that flows in the shade beneath the home cools, and it pleasantly refreshes the back deck, an abstracted version of the traditional “shade structure” to which the indigenous peoples move as the seasons switch from high desert brutally cold to high desert brutally hot.
Only four feet off the ground it also encourages an inordinately greater amount of natural ventilation. The southern exposure is calculatedly glazed for optimum passive solar heating, exposing the sun’s reach to the above-mentioned in-floor radiantly heated concrete thermal mass. The exterior of the Whitehorse home is raised by recycled telephone poles, clad by recycled sheets of aluminum accented by recycled, discarded and aesthetically reconstituted shipping pallets. Natural plaster completely covers the interior, altering color by naturally mixing different deposits of back-breaking, hand-shoveled 5 gallon buckets of clay. The large singly shed roof is guttered, which slope toward the center on the north side and downspout into a 2,000 gallon buried cistern.