When architects working with the Make It Right Foundation visited the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of Fort Peck, Montana, last summer, set on designing new housing for the reservation, one sentiment kept repeating itself in conversations and consultations. Nobody had ever bothered to ask anybody there what kind of housing they wanted.
“Historically, every organization that goes in to help in Indian Country does it wrong,” says architect Joseph Kunkel of the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. “This project was great for the design and tribal communities. Architects tend to say they want to be site specific, and in this case, we made sure to be culturally relevant as well.”
Built around principles of human-centered design, The Fort Peck project gives the non-profit an opportunity to deploy the lessons it learned working on innovative housing in New Orleans to an entirely new setting. The first step was education. Teams of architects and designers from GRAFT, Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, Architecture for Humanity, Method Homes and LivingHomes toured the Southeast Montana reservation for three days last June to meet the tribes, get a sense of the topography and weather conditions (long, cold winters and blisteringly hot summers), and see firsthand how overcrowding and unresponsive design have led to housing issues on the reservation.
The brief, which calls for LEED Certified and solar and geothermal powered homes with 3-4 bedrooms and 2-3 bathrooms, left room for each tribe to create unique floor plans based on their own observations. Kunkel’s group designed the 1,300-square-foot Eagle Round House, a modified round living room with a central gathering space that encourages community while maintaining flexibility. Clad with straw bale and structurally insulated panels, this design-in-the-round structure also incorporate east-facing windows, so tribal members could rise and greet the sun each morning, a vital cultural imperative.
The GRAFT team played with the teepee metaphor to create the Sustainable Village, a family-centric prefab structure that trades private rooms for a more pronounced central room around which the household can gather. Three modules, arrayed around the center space, represent the three poles of a teepee, with an east-facing kitchen to greet the sun, a single-level design to accommodate the tribe’s elderly population and a porch with mosquito netting to enjoy the short, humid summer. The single roof covering recalls the buffalo skins stretched around traditional teepee dwellings.
“The community is incredibly connected to tradition,” says GRAFT founding partner Christoph Korner, who was able to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony during his visit. “They have the only genetically pure buffalo herd outside of Yellowstone. So we wanted to incorporate elements that recall tribal customs, like having a red ring around the structure, traditionally a symbol for peace.”
Currently in the design development phase, the five team’s concepts will soon be shown to tribal members, who will choose which prototype they want (giving them a extra sense of ownership, since they won’t all be living in the same cookie-cutter home). Kunkel is particularly excited about the performance of these prototypes, which will be incorporated into a master plan for the reservation, ease the current housing shortage (currently more than 600 people are on a waiting list) and hopefully teach lessons adaptable to other nearby communities.
“We can do this,” he says, “we can use this as a precedent to show and share with other Indian communities.”