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U architecture students partner with Navajo community to create unique homes and public spaces.

By Ashley Babbitt, public relations specialist, College of Architecture + Planning

Each year, U graduate students from the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning design and build an architectural project to benefit the Navajo Nation in the southern Utah Tribal area. Known as DesignBuildBLUFF, the program immerses students in hands on cross-cultural experiences.

“We work in partnership with the Navajo community of San Juan County in the Utah Four Corners,” said Program Director Jose Galarza. “We offer students an opportunity to design and build a full-scale work of architecture in collaboration with the Navajo people. We emphasize sustainability and a respect for the unique social, cultural and environmental needs of the region.”

“In the most basic sense, it’s about the importance of people from different backgrounds connecting and relating to each other, and respecting each other,” said U architecture student Portia Strahan.

DesignBuildBluff 6

Photo by Baylee Lambourne

Historically, the projects are small single-family homes assigned by the local tribal chapters, but more recently these have expanded to include community projects. Students are encouraged to explore alternative building methods, unique materials and innovative solutions. Each spring, the U architecture students move more than 300 miles away to the remote campus in Bluff, Utah, close to the Navajo Nation’s northernmost chapters to convert their drawings into habitable spaces.

This past spring, students designed a gateway to the Bluff educational campus. After spending the last 12 years working in a historic building, it was time for them to create a new functional workspace that would accommodate their needs and be of use to the community.

“We wanted a space that would not only allow us a clearly identifiable workroom, but also a building that would offer a connection, a face, to the Bluff community and our neighbors,” said Galarza.

The students developed Cedar Hall, an 850-square-foot structure with an open floor plan, white walls for multiuse, rain water collection and a soon to be installed solar energy system. A custom spiral staircase with salvaged wooden steps leads visitors up to the roof deck to view the PV solar panel array (to be installed in fall 2016) as well as a sightline to the Twin Rocks, the landmark of the town. Approximately 70 percent of the framing is recycled material that came from a deconstructed house in Park City, Utah. Other salvaged elements were upcycled into windows and furniture.

“Our hope is for this space to be a teaching tool and a gathering center for the community,” said U architecture student Max Wood. “While we were there, the local elementary students came to tour the property each month to learn about the materials we were using and how we recycled old lumber.” Wood notes the vision is for the community to use the space as a dynamic, multipurpose center, with activities ranging from elementary school art galleries to voting poll locations in the future.