When Hank Louis looks across tribal lands of southeastern Utah, he sees a beautiful yet stark landscape inhabited by people living in conditions that have more in common with a developing country than the world's richest society.
But he also sees troves of potential building materials that can be adapted into striking low-cost, energy-efficient homes, and the freedom to experiment with bold building ideas. Earthen berms can shore up walls, tires are perfect for retaining walls, pallet planks can sheath exterior walls.
With this inspiration in mind, DesignBuildBLUFF, the Bluff-based nonprofit Louis started in 2000, employs University of Utah graduate architecture students to design and build homes for Navajo families.
The unpaid students, who pay a $1,500 fee on top of tuition for the course, get a hands-on service-learning experience that will shape their careers, and the clients get a small home for free.
"They are learning about working in teams, empathy for the contractors and trades people," said Louis, a principal in the Park City firm Gigaplex and an adjunct U. professor. "We teach them to be sensitive to the [Navajo] culture. The door always faces east, and there's clockwise progress through the house."
Some out-of-state students, such as Aniket Deshpande, who grew up in Mumbai, chose the U. for graduate school to participate in DesignBuildBLUFF.
The program has grown to include the University of Colorado Denver, and Louis hopes to invite students from other universities, aiming to build nine homes a year.
But expansion has hit a rough patch with funding becoming tight. And an attempt to pull off two homes simultaneously last year ended in partial failure and an ugly dispute between Louis and the client, another educator associated with the U.
'We can have fun' • Trained in the humanities, Louis wants to change not only the way homes are built but also how architects are trained. Several years ago he bought the historic 3.5-acre Scorup property in Blanding to serve as DBB headquarters.
The Navajo Reservation is an ideal environment, he said, because it has a need for housing and a regulatory approach that allows creative solutions.
"We had no building inspectors, no permits, no nothing," Louis told a Salt Lake City TEDx audience last year. "We can explore things. We can have fun."
Utah's DBB students devote much of the year to the program, earning a semester's worth of credits. In teams of up to 22, they design their projects in Salt Lake City in the fall, then move to Blanding to build them in the spring, working out of the Scorup home.
Last spring, the U. group completed a home in Little Water with rounded berm walls and an oculus. The round side-vented window placed at the highest point to allow heat to escape recalls a traditional hogan, said Rachel Cusimano, a student who worked on that project.
'A big experiment' • Don Stryker, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership, isn't Navajo, but his wife, Sharon, also an educator, is an enrolled member. The family holds a lease on tribal land at Monument Valley, and Stryker signed up for a home from DBB in 2010.
It is now clear, as shown in their angry correspondence after the project soured, that Stryker and Louis have different ideas of the program's mission.
Stryker believes students should be instructed in the everyday reality of building codes and utility hook-ups. Louis wants his students to think beyond conventions with sustainability and simplicity in mind.
He encourages students to "harvest" local materials, find deals on traditional building materials and put them to novel uses. The point, besides keeping construction costs below $25,000, is to respond to the region's social, cultural and environmental concerns.
"There are so many old cars strewn about. Rather than use rebar we'll tie together chunks of metal from old cars to pour a concrete pad," said Louis. "They have welded exhaust pipes into interesting drainage features. It's amazing to see what these students can come up when left to their imaginations."
Cortland Wilson, the student who led the Stryker project, describes the process as "a big experiment. The best way to learn is to make mistakes and learn from them."
Wilson's team visited the Monument Valley site in the fall semester of 2010 to begin the design process and pour a foundation. Another U. crew started designing a house for a family living in Westwater, the off-grid Navajo community west of Blanding.
Both houses were assembled at the Scorup property during spring 2011. It was the first time DBB prefabbed houses, which saved students commuting time between Bluff and the sites. But costs associated with moving the structures added upwards of $10,000 to the cost of the Stryker project.
'This didn't work out' • Stryker's home was built in two wings, one a cooking/living area and the other containing bedrooms. They sit parallel about 12 feet apart with a courtyard between. The wings are to be connected by a "library."
The structure is less than 1,000 square feet and wired with a 100-amp electrical service.
According to students, tensions began early when Stryker sought upgrades, such as wiring to accommodate a hot tub and surround-sound speakers and a driveway.
Stryker said he simply wanted the home's wiring upgraded to support features found in many homes. He offered to cover those costs.
The students eventually asked their construction manager, Moab homebuilder Craig Haren, to ban Stryker from the work site in Bluff. They kept working but did not finish the home by the end of the semester.
The home's two wings sat on the Scorup property for another nine months and were delivered in March.
Wilson had been organizing trips to Monument Valley in April to complete the project, but Stryker did not like what he was seeing. His uncle, Victor Mines, a long-time homebuilder from Pennsylvania, examined dozens of photographs and pronounced the house a disaster in harshly worded emails to DBB.
Mines criticized the materials used, such as the pallets covering the exterior. They wouldn't really protect the structure, he said. The house was poorly assembled, exhibits signs of rot and fails to meet basic codes, Stryker and his uncle alleged in letters to U. officials, including President David Pershing.
"We were told that we were clients. When it came down to it we were never clients," Stryker said. "It needs to be built to code. That's all we're asking for."
DBB has assured San Juan County building officials that "all local and national codes were followed" in constructing the home.
"Sure, we've made mistakes, but we did everything we could to provide what Don wanted," Wilson said. "They were extremely insulting to us." U. officials have declined to intervene because DBB is an independent entity, though it is funded with student tuition and special fees.
"We have never had trouble with people's homes in the past," U. architecture dean Brenda Scheer said. "The students are disappointed that this didn't work out."
'Beautiful in its own sense' • Of the 16 homes built by DBB, the Stryker project was the only one that went awry, said Wilson, who now works for the organization.
The home sits unfinished at Stryker's Monument Valley site, with a "No trespassing" sign.
Louis hopes to get it back, either to use as student housing on the Scorup site or to finish it for another family.
"It is beautiful in its own sense, something what maybe an architect's eye can perceive," Deshpande, now an associate with the Chicago firm CSA Partners, wrote in an email.