The Good Earth

Just outside of Bluff, Utah, on the Red Mesa Navajo Reservation, eight U students gave Rosie Joe an big gift: a home.

The College of Architecture and Planning students, along with their Design Build Studio professor, Hank Louis, traveled 273 miles to a town of sand and dust to build the house. The Utah Development Corporation, Dennis Caulfield Construction, several former architecture students and a handful of experts assisted them.

The eight CAP students moved to Bluff in late January to start construction. Not only did they have to overcome intense heat, the students also had to build with few materials and without electricity.

Design Build Studio, the course through which the students planned and constructed the house, is a “class to explore different ways of building,” Louis said.

Last fall, the CAP students began the project by interviewing families and selected Joe based on need and a willingness to embrace an alternative design.

“On the reservation, everyone needs a house,” said Louis. “We needed someone who would like an alternative design. The family provides the land and we provide the architecture and construction.”

In the spirit of the national movement to conserve energy and reduce the use of valuable resources, the CAP students designed the house last fall with the environment in mind.

“Looking around the site [and] seeing the sand” inspired the use of rammed earth as a building material, according to Louis.

Rammed earth is just what it sounds like: sand and clay compressed into 18-inch-thick walls. The rammed-earth walls act as a thermal mass that stores heat entering the house through a wall of windows. After the sun has set, the stored heat then disperses throughout the house, keeping it warm through the cold desert night.

Other elements of the house add to its efficiency. The roof, made of welded steel bars, butterflies into the air to collect rainwater. The interior walls are insulated with straw and “faced with discarded road and highway signs, scavenged sheet metal and patina flashing metal,” according to a recent U press release.

“In such a remote area, nothing can be thrown away…Everything is overtaxed, with embodied energy,” Louis said.

For the last five years, Louis and his CAP students have been designing, building and donating projects around Utah.

“We started out small-building bandstands. Then we built the Urban Treehouse in Bend-in-the-River State Park,” Louis said. Three years ago, the class built a straw bale house for a Tibetan immigrant family that came to be known as the “Kunga House.” Last year, the graduate students built “Studio Squared,” a mobile dwelling unit that was moved to Bluff as a combined apartment-workplace for visiting professors, according to the press release.

“The idea is to continue to build in Bluff so they [the CAP students] can focus on the project,” Louis said.

[email protected]