Final Studio Project by Leslee Kirkham and Naima Nawabi
designbuildBLUFF Mission and Philosophy
Native Americans living on the tribal land of the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation face some of the most difficult
housing conditions in our country. The unemployment rate is more than double the national average and more than one-third
live in poverty. Over forty percent live in overcrowded or dilapidated housing. Basic infrastructure, including water,
sewer and roads, are often severely inadequate. Nearly half (43%) of the population live below the poverty line.
The housing need in this region is astounding and as practitioners of architecture, we are a natural partner in the
design and creation of housing solutions. Each spring semester, a group of graduate students of architecture move to Bluff
to build a house for a family on the Navajo Reservation. These students work with the Navajo Nation to select a family whom
they feel needs a home and are willing to work with them for an innovative and earth-conscious design. What follows is a
lot of hard work.
designbuildBLUFF's main emphasis on the designing and building of the Navajo Nation homes is to
techniques such as earthen plaster, rammed earth, passive solar, rainwater catchment, permaculture, straw bale construction,
Icynene foam (a green, water-based, open-celled insulation product), and materials salvaged from the landscape of the
reservation itself such as substratum and reed from the local riverbed.
Design plans are formatted around donated and recycled (used) materials such as windows, doors and appliances.
Additionally, we use the exclusively unique Navajo Nation-produced Flex-crete, a new concrete block product made with
fibrous aggregate from the surrounding soil, thereby further reducing the need to import building materials. Building
sustainable, off-grid green homes that have very little impact on the environment accomplishes the delicate balance of the
desire of the Navajo people to respect their sacred land while still providing a much needed home. Our projects embody old
lives, new lives, the past, the present, the future, and all things natural.
Before this opportunity, most of the students have had no experience in building and construction. As it is to be expected
and is in fact welcome, solutions discovered in the field force students to re-think the translation of drawings to construction.
As students in this field are preparing for their careers, they rarely have the opportunity to learn the practicalities of
their profession. The studio culture prevalent in most academic institutions focuses on theory and design and little on the
hands-on application of architecture and its impact on surrounding communities.
In addition, greater emphasis on a personal investment in one's community hugely benefits the development of students' design
methodology. Our program aspires to grow a student's comfort zone, immerse them in an unfamiliar culture, twists the scales of
tolerance, opens ears, and hence, minds. These small projects have in them the architectural essence to enchant us, to inspire
us, and ultimately to elevate our profession.