From Shane M. Stephenson
A Sweat Equity Prototype
There is an overwhelming need for affordable and culturally appropriate housing within the Navajo Nation, more than DesignBuildBLUFF can meaningfully contribute on its own. With this problem in mind our students sought to develop a flexible housing prototype that could be easily built by would-be native homeowners.
The concept of “sweat equity” is one in which the client uses their own labor, rather than cash, as a form of contribution in the building process. This student-led design, in collaboration with the Dennehotso Sweat Equity Project, creates opportunities to more directly address the issues of homelessness across the Navajo Nation by empowering communities with the basic skills, design principles, and experience needed to build for themselves. The prototype emphasizes ease of construction, material availability, and expansion through phases.
During the design process, a moment of innovation occurred from a basic framing exercise. Students realized a way to maintain efficient use of materials while still allowing for formal adaptability. This discovery was enhanced by the appreciation that the process of assembly needed to be simple in order for the clients to meaningfully participate in the construction. Beginning with the typology of a small single-pitch roof structure (a shed), the design duplicates that form and mirrors it along an axis to expand into a larger volume. The final form, a combination of two joined shed structures, could be configured in multiple ways (gable, butterfly, and so on), and if shifted, imply the possibility for continual expansion. Using two matching shed structures as a starting point, and then shifting the volumes along a central axis, public and private halves were defined, the traditional gable roof form was broken, and most importantly, expansion zones were created in the resulting spaces. It models simple construction methods while also providing customization depending on the client’s needs and site.
Functionally, one half of the building (the first shed) contains private rooms and a plumbing core with bathroom and kitchen bar on either side; the other half is an open plan, intended to serve as a living room, gathering space, and hearth. This public half echoes Navajo concepts found in the traditional Hogan, where families carry out traditional ceremonies and also gather for communal events. The foundation system is also split: the private half is a poured concrete slab, while the public half utilizes a concrete stem wall filled with an adobe earthen floor. Using natural building techniques and materials sourced from site creates the opportunity for the client to find free and readily available materials, and additionally gain specialized skills that echo traditional culture. The use of adobe flooring, lime finishes, and clay plasters, allows for easy maintenance using components sourced from soil of the client’s own backyard. Beyond the delivery of one house, the Navajo community we worked with has received some tangible hands-on experiences working with our students, demonstrations of local material use, the plans for an adaptable home, and a building journal that outlines in detail the entire building process. It is hoped that the plans and principles set forth by this prototype will create a lasting legacy.