When a nonprofit group approached Lorraine Nakai in 2011 and
offered to build her a house, she was taken by surprise. Although
her community activism had improved living conditions for other
Navajos on the reservation, it had never occurred to her to seek
anything for herself.
"I didn't even know I'd been nominated," she said. "And I was
hesitant to be on the receiving end."
Eventually, though, she overcame her qualms. And eight months
later, Ms. Nakai, a poet and entomologist, settled into a new home
at the northern edge of the 27,425-square-mile Navajo Nation, in
an area of southeastern Utah her family has inhabited for generations.
Her design and construction crew consisted of eight architecture
students participating in a joint venture between the University
of Colorado, Denver, and DesignBuildBLUFF, an organization in Bluff,
Utah. Founded in 2004 by Hank Louis, a journalist turned architect,
the nonprofit group was modeled on Rural Studio, the Alabama-based
design-build program, in its emphasis on creative recycling and
giving students hands-on experience in an underserved community.
As Rick Sommerfeld, the University of Colorado instructor in charge,
described it, "It's an immersive program in another culture, like
studying abroad in a third-world country, except it happens to be
within the United States."
Ms. Nakai, 56, spent much of her childhood here, but like her
siblings and two grown children, she left the reservation to pursue
an education and career. She was working in entomology on a corporate
farm in New Mexico when her grandmother and then her mother died,
leaving no one to tend the family homestead, a cluster of small,
rundown buildings in the sparsely populated desert.
Towering over the flat, windswept site is a water-pumping windmill
her parents hauled piece by piece from New Mexico in the 1960s.
Whenever Ms. Nakai visited after her mother's death, she would watch
the windmill recede in her rearview mirror as she drove away and
burst into tears. It represented not just childhood memories, but
also her parents' hard-earned investment in water, a precious commodity.
She knew she had to move back.
So in 2001, Ms. Nakai relocated to her grandmother's stone
cottage and filled it with nearly 2,000 books that she needed to
home-school her "gifted and intellectually rambunctious son," she
said. (Now 23, he is an emergency medical technician.)
By the time the architecture students arrived, the cottage
was in such disrepair that renovation would have meant razing it.
So they began from scratch a few yards away. Their budget was $25,000
for a 745-square-foot house, with 11 weeks for construction.
Ms. Nakai, who teaches Navajo language, science and math part
time at a local school, wanted a flexible space where she could
focus on painting, poetry and agricultural research, and could look
out on the geological formations she associated with her ancestors.
Her stories inspired the long Cor-Ten steel roof that gestures
toward a hill she loved climbing as a child and a lone tree that
survives from her family's grove. The building materials were mostly
salvaged, recycled, donated or obtained cut-rate.
A 50-foot-long bookcase runs down the loftlike space. The bathroom
is reached through a door tucked into it, and even Ms. Nakai's bed
is part of the shelving, a nook she calls "my yacht cabin."
Now able to focus on her creative work, Ms. Nakai said the
home has grounded her. "This transformation continues to seep in,"
she added. "It still amazes me that this house is mine."
At DesignBuildBLUFF we give architecture students the chance to
design and build a new home for a deserving Navajo family in Bluff,
Utah. They do this with a focus on sustainability and respect to
the unique social, cultural and environmental needs of the region.
Students are encouraged to explore alternative building methods,
unique building materials and innovative solutions. It is, in a
way, the ultimate sustainabilityuse of the elements naturally
at hand, within reach, both physically and economically.