But eight graduate students at the University of Utah's College of Architecture and Planning did exactly that last spring and summer on the Navajo Reservation south of Bluff. The result is a striking, energy-efficient house that since July has been a home to a single mother, Rosie Joe, and her two children.
Joe is a hard-working woman who holds down three part-time jobs to support her 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Until July, she lived with other family members in a ragged complex of corrugated tin shacks. The architecture students selected her for the project - which meant a free new home - from among a group of needy families near Bluff.
"The students chose [Joe] for her industriousness," says Hank Louis, the adjunct professor who guided the student project. Joe and her family, who are Navajo, also were open to the students' design concept, which relies on alternative energy sources.
"I love it," says Joe by phone from a Bluff restaurant where she waits tables. "It's something different - it's not just a regular house. I've had quite a few people come over and look at it. They said they want to build a house just like it."
Joe's friends and family are not the only ones admiring the 1,200-square-foot house's creative design. Rosie Joe's home is one of three recent building projects given top honors earlier this month by the Utah chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The awards were the result of a design competition held by AIA Utah, a professional society of more than 450 architects, to recognize its members' best designs.
A Catholic church in Draper and a college fine-arts center in St. George were among the other projects honored. A jury of out-of-state architects chose the winners from among 38 submissions.
Much of what makes the Rosie Joe house unique is its remote location. Joe picked the site, 22 miles southeast of Bluff, on land controlled by her great aunt. The nearest neighbors are half a mile away; the site offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and rocky buttes.
When asked what features she would like in her new home, all Joe requested was a kitchen. Students added the bedrooms, a bathroom and a great room, linked by a narrow glass-lined hallway facing south to let in welcome winter sunlight while shielding the blistering summer sun. In recent months, the house's interior has been substantially cooler than the surrounding desert.
"It stays cool all day," Joe says.
The house's most unusual feature is its 2,500-square-foot "butterfly" roof, which floats over the house collecting rainwater. One inch of rainfall fills the house's cistern, which supplies water to the kitchen and bathroom.
Solar panels generate enough electricity to light the house and power small appliances. The stove and refrigerator are fueled by propane.
"This is an incredibly elegant solution to the problem of living in remote desert location," competition jurors said in honoring the Rosie Joe house. "It . . . creates a home off the grid that is as comfortable as possible and virtually cost-free to maintain."
Construction of the house, done with volunteer student labor, took 16 weeks. Total cost? $21,219.58.
In addition to the Rosie Joe home, two other projects earned AIA Utah Honor Awards, the contest's highest level of distinction. They are:
l St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at the Skaggs Catholic Center in Draper; designed by EDA Architects.
"We liked the interplay between transparent and solid areas of the building," said jurors in a statement. "The architect had a height restriction yet worked with this limitation to make it just right for the building's proportions. The stained glass brings color into the space, even playing off the interior columns."
l Dolores Dor Eccles Fine Arts Center at Dixie State College in St. George; designed by Gould Evans Associates.
"Particular care was taken with the main entrance to heighten the anticipation of attending an arts event," jurors said. "Functionally, the glass walls allow patrons to see which of the three theaters they may be attending as they enter."
Five other projects earned Merit Awards:
l The Utah Fieldhouse of Natural History and State Park Museum in Vernal; designed by ajc architects.
l Murray High School in Murray; designed by Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects.
l Cedar City Public Library in Cedar City; designed by Gould Evans Associates.
l A Gallery's new Sugar House location in Salt Lake City; designed by ajc architects.
l Mesa Verde Cultural Center Master Plan for Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.; designed by ajc architects.
Jurors for the competition were Herman Orcutt of Phoenix; Margaret L. Duncker of Jackson, Wyo.; and Ken Small of Las Vegas.
Jurors spent Sept. 23 reviewing written and graphic materials, which were presented anonymously. The design awards were presented Oct. 1 at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
To enter the competition, an architect must be a Utah resident, licensed in Utah and a member of the AIA. The projects may be built anywhere in the world but must have been completed in the prior five years.