Architect Hank Louis talks about how he teaches architectural students to build sustainable and cultural based homes for Navajo families in Utah. Photo by Sally Hedberg

By Don Dietz and Sally Hedberg


The Idyllwild Arts Native Arts Week speaker, architect Hank Louis, gave a new and refreshing perspective on architectural training and education. Louis’ presentation was entitled “Building with Empathy: Homes on the Navajo Reservation.”

“While our educational system is good at teaching many things, how to be an architect isn’t always one of them,” he said. “Students come out with a degree, yet the vast majorities are sent out into the workforce without ever having to mix concrete, turn a screw or pound a nail.”

So how does a group of University of Utah architectural students learn about construction? They begin by completing the DesignBuildBluff program, which gives the students an opportunity to design and build sustainable housing for Navajo families.

Louis founded the rigorous six months “hands-on” building program to give students experiences in every aspects of construction. The work occurs on the Navajo reservation in Bluff, Utah, near Four Corners and Monument Valley.

In collaboration with the Navajo elders, students select and interview families to determine their needs and desires. An important aspect is for the construction to be culturally sensitive, such as doors facing east, views of the four sacred mountains and a clockwise rotation in the houses while considering the sun and wind.

Plans for each structure are developed as the students and family collaborate on the final design.

The real learning experience began when the students arrive at the building site on the reservation. Most sites are remote with no water or electricity, and the temperature half of the year is hot while the remaining months are covered in snow.

A solar paneled trailer provides electricity for power tools. Donated or confiscated nontraditional building materials like abandoned car parts and tires, telephone poles, large pipe, rejected tin paneling, straw bales and shipping pallets, save costs and encourage creative design. Natural clay is used for rammed earth building blocks similar to traditional adobe.

With the various materials available, students face the challenge of building homes by hand. This nonrestrictive learning environment gives them an opportunity to create and build original, sustainable structures in a cultural environment very different from their own.

Louis concluded his talk saying, “Many of the 200 students had no idea that a third world country was in their own backyard. Forty-three percent of the Navajos live in poverty and 45 percent never graduate from high school. Building these homes for the Navajo families gives the students a social awareness that I hope will stay with them forever.”

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