University graduates design and build cabins on Navajo reservation in Utah

Graduate students of a Colorado university design-build programme have completed a pair of cabins on the Navajo reservation made of rusted steel and reclaimed barn wood (+ slideshow).

The cabins were designed and constructed by architecture students and faculty in the Design Build BLUFF programme at the University of Colorado Denver, who worked in collaboration with the Mexican Water Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Faculty from the University of Utah also contributed to the project.

Called the Red Sand Cabins, the dwellings are intended to accommodate visitors to the remote desert region ringed by mountains. The area features Monument Valley, a cluster of tall sandstone buttes that draws 400,000 tourists each year.

“Influenced by the landscape and distant views of the Blue Mountains and Monument Valley, the programmatic design and materiality led to the development of two ‘sibling’ cubes,” said the design team.

“One rests on the landscape while the other emerges from it. Each cabin establishes its own identity while simultaneously evoking the same language together.”

The 300-square-foot (28 square metre) cabins – one named ‘Sunrise’ and the other ‘Sunset’ – are clad in weathering steel, with attached patios framed in reclaimed barn wood. The patios are located on the northern side of the buildings and provide shade during the summer.

The orientation of each cabin is based on the Navajo tradition of eastern entry, where the door is always located on the east side to welcome in the sun.

Inside, the flooring, sinks and counters are made of concrete and the walls are sheathed in reclaimed wood.

Windows frame views of the sky and the surrounding landscape. Skylights and carefully positioned electrical fixtures fill the rooms with diffused light and are designed to emphasise materiality.

The Sunrise Cabin contains a sunken-bed platform for two, while the Sunset Cabin has a bed, futon and loft that can accommodate up to six guests.

Design Build BLUFF is a graduate architecture program that was started in 2000 at the University of Utah and expanded to the University of Colorado Denver. The program provides students with hands-on, cross-cultural experiences and works in partnership with the Navajo community of San Juan County.

Each autumn, students in the program’s studio course design a pre-identified architectural project for the Navajo Nation. In past years, the programme has mostly created single-family homes, including a residence for a Navajo woman in 2012 and a rusty steel dwelling with four glazed gables.

The students study indigenous architecture, read building specifications, create working drawings, and draw up project management documents. In the spring, they live on a remote campus in Bluff, Utah – a small community of roughly 300 people – where they work with locals to construct the buildings.

“BLUFF is an absolutely transformative experience for everyone who participates in it,” said the programme. “It has turned idealistic students into professionals not just invested in public interest rhetoric but an ability to execute it.”

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