Build houses in the Navajo Nation

The University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning’s DesignBuildUTAH program engages students in design and construction projects, applying foundational knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world projects through two experiences: DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff in the Navajo Nation and DesignBuildUTAH@SLC in urban settings. settings.

Since 2004, the DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff program has allowed students to immerse themselves in hands-on opportunities to design and build large-scale works of architecture in collaboration with residents of Indigenous communities in San Juan County, all four corners of Utah.

Since this year, 16 houses and several projects, including community kitchens, classrooms, cabins and landscape arts, have been built in the area by students.

“DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff is simply an amazing collaborative learning experience unlike any other,” said Keith Diaz Moore, Dean of the University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning. “Students are not only engaged in the intense learning of designing and building a project for an actual client, but they are doing it with an indigenous community with a different culture and political structure; build side by side with future occupants who learn in a sweat equity model with students. The result is a project that houses families living in precarious housing – a transformational outcome in itself – but also a transformational learning experience for students, occupants and the community.

In December 2021, six students from the School of Architecture completed the “Horseshoe Project,” an 864-square-foot expandable home with a greenhouse, woodstove, outdoor fireplace, and water catchment to collect heat. rainwater.

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


Most Navajo Nation construction sites have no electricity or running water. Students and instructors design and build the residential projects with homes in mind that fit the needs of the beneficiaries and the environment of the Navajo Nation.

“We focus on eco-friendly and affordable homes in a place with many challenges,” said Atsushi Yamamoto, program instructor. “For the Horseshoe project, students built a box that allows off-grid electricity to power the home. Navajo Nation hooks up infrastructure after a home is built, so this box allows new homeowners to install solar panels and batteries or running a generator to heat and light their home.

Sustainable and affordable homes

DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff emphasizes sustainability and respect for the region’s unique social, cultural and environmental needs. Before beginning the design phase, students tour the area and are encouraged to explore alternative construction methods, unique materials, and innovative solutions.

For the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Home Beneficiaries have taken the courses online to strengthen the bond between students and the client. Students design their projects with the “Sweat Equity” concept in mind, allowing beneficiaries to help with construction so that they can potentially expand their home in the future.

“We aim to provide learning opportunities not only for our architecture students, but also for home-based beneficiaries,” Yamamoto said. “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. »

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

During the construction semester, students live in Bluff, in the northern Navajo Nation. The design phase takes place in the summer and the construction phase takes place from September to November due to extreme weather conditions during the rest of the year.


In 2021, the Horseshoe project required 12 weeks of on-site work and over 5,000 man-hours. The Navajo Revitalization Fund provided most of the materials funds, with the balance of the materials donated by Big-D Construction, Mountain Fiber Insulation, and JRC Lighting.

Architectural firms, businesses, and professionals can donate funds or volunteer in the program. Over the years, donors like the Sorenson Legacy Foundation have helped sustain DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff as one of the top programs in the nation that focuses on sustainable housing with a sweat equity model.

“We are proud to support the work of DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff,” said Lisa Meiling, Executive Director of the Sorenson Legacy Foundation. “This program is a true example of the best of humanity, using our talents and resources to uplift others. We seek projects that empower people to be empowered and empowered. of construction, we believe that these houses will be maintained and improved for a long time.

DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff instructors are currently meeting with potential donors for the 2022 project. Interested companies can donate lumber, windows, plumbing, electrical equipment or tools. If you would like to support the program, please contact Angie Harris Roberts at If you would like to contribute materials or volunteer, please contact Hiroko Yamamoto at

James C. Tibbs