Students at the Windcatcher House

On Dec. 11, 2010, in the chill, tart air of the desert in winter, 22 University of Colorado Denver students watched as the Navajo community blessed the house they had spent the last four months building.

Built for Maxine Begay and her son, Maurice, the Windcatcher House is the eighth home constructed by DesignBuildBLUFF, a nonprofit organi­zation that gives graduate architecture students design build experience (“design build” refers to keeping the design and construction of a project in the same hands) while providing sustainable homes for Navajo families at no charge.

Founded in 2000 by architect Hank Lewis, DesignBuildBLUFF was modeled on Auburn University’s Rural Studio, a program started by professors Dennis K. Ruth and the late Samuel Mockbee to help improve living conditions in rural Alabama while giving architecture students real projects to design and build.

Initially DesignBuildBLUFF used the talents of students at the University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning, who over the course of two semesters designed and built one home in the bristly southeastern Utah desert. Hoping to increase the number of projects to as many as nine per year, Lewis called Rick Sommerfeld, associate chair of CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, about bringing his students onboard.

“I was hoping for 15 students,” Sommerfeld says about the initial DesignBuildBLUFF offering, “but we had 22 with a wait list of three or four.”

Michael Sullivan was supposed to graduate last December but postponed in order to work on DesignBuildBLUFF. Raised in Wahoo, Neb., Sullivan, 27, has a degree in environmental design from CU Boulder. “I have a lot of love for construction, but know what it does to you,” he says. “With design build, you’re not outside doing construction 24/7; you get the comfort of being in an office in design mode.”

Hence his decision to pursue his master’s in architecture. A veteran of two previous UCD design build projects—the entryway to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and facilities for the urban food project Feed Denver—Sullivan was happy to acquire the additional experience while delaying entry into a difficult job market.

Over the course of the summer, students met with three prospective families and investigated two possible community projects, selecting Begay as their client so she could provide a healthy home environment for her son. They did their surveying and site analysis, developed 11 preliminary designs that they narrowed down to three, of which Begay selected her favorite. In the fall they returned, some never having held a screw driver, to build the house.

“The group is pretty diverse,” Sullivan ex­plains. “There are some who have done construction, but there’s a larger handful who have never touched a tool. We have art, art his­tory, psychology majors. Using that diversity is pretty interesting.”

Equipped with a $45,000 bud­get, students sourced, recycled and scrounged materials wherever they could. Learning curves were steep, with construction methods researched one day and deployed soon thereafter.

“They designed all this and they built everything with no subcontrac­tors,” Sommerfeld explains. “They dug foundation with shovels. All the concrete was mixed by hand, the walls rammed by hand. They installed every window and cabinet. It’s an intense immersive education for students.”

In a blog post midway through the project on the DesignBuildBLUFF site, student Joshua Paulsen muses about this kind of hands-dirty education. “Modern architectural education leans hard toward the theorization of the profession while eschewing construction and divorcing itself from the realities of budget, time and space. It teaches us to be a bit too wordy and perhaps not enough worldly…[DesignBuildBLUFF], and programs like it, fill a unique but necessary role in our education as architects: it straddles the line between theory and reality, design and construc­tion, mind and hand. A glimpse of what a ‘master builder’ should be.”

The result is both striking and smart; the two-bedroom, one-bath house blends into the buff-colored landscape. A metal roof cants away from the bluff. Insulating rammed-earth walls form the structure’s durable shell and a large chimney tower, cleverly serves as the home’s hearth and evaporative cooling system.

“It’s life-changing for the clients,” Lewis says, “But it might even be more life changing for students, who learn about a Third World country in our own country and learn to work as a team and learn to put things together. I’ve seen it change students’ lives and change their ideas about how they will go through their careers as architects.”

POSTSCRIPT – The Windcatcher House was the winner of Best Student Architecture Work and the Reader’s Choice for Best Student Architecture Work in the Best of Green Awards: Design and Architecture 2011 competition by TreeHugger, the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream.

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