This University of Utah Program Brings Homes to the Navajo Nation

Atsushi Yamamoto and his wife, Hiroko Yamamoto, like to take a hands-on approach as architects. They also believe in sharing their experience with future generations.

These beliefs have earned them instructor roles with DesignBuildUTAH, a University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning program that allows graduate students to immerse themselves in hands-on design and construction opportunities. of large-scale architectural works in collaboration with residents of the Native American communities of San Juan County.

“We focus on eco-friendly and affordable homes in a place with many challenges,” said Atsushi Yamamoto, the program instructor.

Last December, six students from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning completed the Horseshoe project, an 864-square-foot expandable home with a greenhouse, woodstove, fire pit and water catchment to collect water. rainwater.

“The Horseshoe project was really designed with a sense of the customer in mind, trying to meet some of those specific desires, not just of the customer but of the Navajo culture in that regard,” said Keith Moore, Dean of the College. . of architecture and urban planning at the U.

University of Utah architecture students work on the Horseshoe project near Bluff, Utah. In December, six students from the U. completed the Navajo Nation Expandable Home which includes a greenhouse, woodstove, fire pit and water catchment pond to collect rainwater.

To ensure the project was designed with the customer in mind, students and home-based beneficiaries took online courses together throughout the design phase to develop and refine the construction plan before construction began. construction in September.

sweat equity

One of the main aspects of the program, said Hiroko Yamamoto, is based on a concept called sweat equity.

“(Clients) learn how we design, how we build, what the materials are, how to use the tools,” she said. “Everything we learn with the students and the client. This educational opportunity is not just for the students, it is also an educational opportunity for the Diné community.”

This concept allows beneficiaries to help with construction, opening the door for them to potentially expand or modify their home in the future.

“We designed the Horseshoe House with a few ideas in mind, such as the lifestyle of the collaborative residents (beneficiaries) and the building materials available,” said Isabella Ghabash, a graduate student involved in the project. “One of the recipients is an incredibly talented (and) experienced bricklayer, so we were lucky to have his expertise at home.”

A plan shows the process of expanding the Horseshoe House in three phases.

A plan shows the Horseshoe House expansion process in three phases.

University of Utah, College of Architecture and Planning

“We aim to provide learning opportunities, not only for our architecture students, but also for home-based beneficiaries,” said Atsushi Yamamoto. “The students have completed the essential parts of the construction, and since we have worked together with the beneficiaries, they are confident that they will complete the rest of the work on their new home.”

In addition to the sweat equity model, the Yamamotos also said they incorporated local materials such as sand, clay, and earth into the design of the building.

Design challenges

Atsushi Yamamoto said the biggest challenge of the project, in his eyes, was designing the house as an off-grid and on-grid hybrid, as well as the difficulties associated with the location of the construction site.

“When you’re dealing with such a remote site, you have to be incredibly efficient with your logistics: how are you going to get the materials there? When are they going to get there?” said Moore. “It kind of exacerbates all the complexities that would occur in a project that’s set in a suburban environment, but here now you’re basically in a border environment.”

Due to the remoteness, beneficiaries at home sometimes face a long waiting period before water and electricity lines can be connected to their homes. Still, Atsushi Yamamoto said DesignBuildUTAH’s goal is to have beneficiaries move into their new homes immediately after construction — a goal that requires innovative solutions.

The completed Horseshoe project is pictured near Bluff, Utah.  In December, six University of Utah students completed the Navajo Nation Expandable Home, which includes a greenhouse, woodstove, fire pit and water catchment to collect rainwater.

The completed Horseshoe project is pictured near Bluff, Utah. In December, six University of Utah students completed the Navajo Nation Expandable Home, which includes a greenhouse, woodstove, fire pit and water catchment to collect rainwater.

“The house has to have a concept. One is off-grid. But once the electricity and water are connected, (it’s) on-grid. So the students have to design both,” he said. declared. “For the Horseshoe Project, students built a box that allows off-grid electricity to power the home. The Navajo Nation hooks up infrastructure after a home is built, so this box allows new homeowners install solar panels and batteries or run a generator to heat and light their home.”

In total, the Horseshoe project required 12 weeks of on-site work and over 5,000 man-hours. The Navajo Revitalization Fund provided most of the material funds and the balance of the materials were donated by Big-D Construction, Mountain Fiber Insulation and JRC Lighting.

Looking forward

Since 2004, 16 homes and several projects—including community kitchens, classrooms, cabins, and landscaping art—have been built in the Four Corners area by students.

“Now that we have that track record, we have some idea of ​​what they’re looking for in their designs,” Moore said.

DesignBuildUTAH works in partnership with rural and indigenous communities in San Juan County in the Four Corners area. Each year, recipients are chosen based on recommendations for funding from the Utah Navajo Trust, the Navajo Revitalization Fund, and local chapters.

The Yamamotos are currently meeting with potential donors for the 2022 project. Interested companies can donate lumber, windows, plumbing, electrical equipment or tools. Those interested in supporting the program can contact Angie Harris Roberts at [email protected] Those wishing to contribute materials or volunteer can contact Hiroko Yamamoto at [email protected]

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