University of Utah students build house of dreams


On the Navajo Reservation in southern Utah, Suzie Whitehorse lives with her four children in a Hogan, a traditional American Indian-style home.

The 44-year-old woman managed to escape with her children from an alcoholic husband but can’t find a job and does all her cooking and cleaning in the 15-foot wide dome-shaped hut. She is cramped in there with beds, a small stove and refrigerator.

However, thanks to the work of 18 graduate students from the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning, Whitehorse will be getting a home for herself and her four children.

The students signed up for the DesignBuildBLUFF program that was organized by architecture professor Hank Louis in 2001.

Louis set up the program to give graduate students hands-on experience with designing and building a home, as well as help them give back to the community.

The students spent fall semester picking a family that lives on the Navajo Reservation near Bluff, Utah, and began designing a home for them.

After several interviews, the students chose Whitehorse as the 2008-09 recipient.

“What separated Suzie from all the candidates was her and her family’s living situation,” said Sean Baron, a DesignBuildBLUFF student. “It was far worse than the others, and it was for this reason that she was the main focus of our roundtable discussion about which family to build for. “

At the end of November 2008, the students paired off into groups and presented blueprints and design models of what they think the design should be.

Louis said one element many of the students are trying to incorporate into their design plans is parts of the Navajo culture, considering what kind of house Suzie would enjoy the most.

Christian Falazar, another DesignBuildBLUFF student, worked with two other students designing a possible house and tried to consider what Whitehorse wanted for living space.

“She definitely didn’t want a mud or dirt home like she has now, but I don’t think she wants something too modern,” Falazar said.

The students have an even more difficult task. Like a lot of the land on the Navajo Reservation that U graduate students build on, Whitehorse’s plot of land lacks water and most other utilities.

“We’re very fortunate that she has electricity,” said Mitch McComb, a former student of Louis’s who now works on the project as an assistant. “She has no sewage, heat [or] water. She has to haul water 30 to 40 miles away.”

To solve the utility problem, students have to think and design creatively to give Whitehorse a house that gives her water and heating in a natural way.

About three years ago, students in the program won an award from the American Institute of Architects in the western mountain region for their unique design on a house for Rosie Joe, a Navajo woman.

The house used a butterfly-roof design to capture and store water, as well as solar panels and heat-trapping materials to keep the house relatively warm through winter weather.

Students are considering a similar design for Whitehorse’s house while also trying to consider what she wants.

Graduate student Sean Baron and his teammate, Zack Tanner, decided to focus their design around the four elements — earth, wind, water and fire — which can represent healing in the Navajo culture.

Baron said they have also considered where Whitehorse wants to sleep and where the kitchen should be.

“She said she wanted her own room and a separate room for her boys, maybe upstairs in a loft,” Baron said.

Most of the students tried to separate the bedrooms from kitchen and a bathroom, and left the living room in the center so the family could congregate and enjoy the house together.

Louis said that many of the clients don’t want anything fancy or modern in their home, they want the simple things that many people take for granted.

“A [former client], Dora Benali, said that she would want shelves in her bathroom,” Louis said. “That’s the one thing she really wanted for her dream house.”

Louis said he’s excited his current students picked Whitehorse because of how bad her living conditions were. He said that in the past, students have chosen a hard-working person they can relate to who speaks fluent English.

Whitehorse, however, speaks little English so students will have to overcome that language barrier to communicate with her, Louis said.

The students are also beginning to realize “how spoiled we all are,” Louis said. By considering Whitehorse’s situation, students can appreciate the small things they take for granted, like indoor plumbing.

McComb said all students will move in January 2009 to a house about 40 miles away from Whitehorse’s plot of land in Bluff and stay there for two weeks at a time working on the house.

The students take a week off after that to stay with family or work back home near the U, but for the rest of that time they eat, sleep and work as a group to finish the house by May.

“Usually they’re not finished completely by the time the semester ends,” McComb said. “We’ll hire some of the students as interns to finish the house over the summer. There’s usually one or two who aren’t traveling and don’t have families they need to visit.”

As the months approach closer to May, the students will work up to 11 hours on the house trying to finish in time, and all of it for free, McComb said.

Students aren’t paid but instead pay for the DesignBuildBLUFF class they take as part of their graduate degree.

Louis said that despite the hours and labor, many students enjoy the work and bond with the family so much that they will occasionally return to check on the house they built.

“For the Rosie Joe house, the students came back from five years ago to ask her if there’s any maintenance issues that need to be taken care of,” Louis said. “As a group they’ll come back. It’s pretty amazing. That’s what keeps me going.”

And the program has the support of the Navajo Reservation and city councils in Bluff, Louis said.

Kenneth Maryboy, a commissioner for San Juan County, said Louis and the graduate students do amazing work.

“There are many things members of the community do every year for members of the Navajo Tribe, but the work the students accomplish is a bright hope,” he said.

He said the students come out every year to build a house for a family that needs it, without asking for any money in return.

The program is funded by various donations throughout the year. McComb said that not counting the free student labor, it costs about $60,000 to build a house every year.

“There’s a running joke that these homes cost $900,000 because of all the work students do,” he said.

For the students involved, knowing they can give Whitehorse that gift is more than enough payment.

“She’s such a sweet woman,” Falazar said. “We want to do this for her.”

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