Final Stretch

Monument Valley from White Mesa at Sunset

In this second-to-last session of the semester, we are most certainly on the home stretch. It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come, especially now that the true character of the houses is starting to shine through with finish materials. We’ve all become accustomed to one another’s strengths and weaknesses, found new skills and new ineptitudes in ourselves, and grown accustomed to this new lifestyle, which will come to an end in just over a month.


Starting this session, every morning we have brief safety meetings to remind us all to be careful throughout the day. Although we’re all familiar with the rules, it’s easy to skip a safety step here and there as we rush to the finish line. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a fellow classmate to lend a hand or to just remember to wear safety glasses. We’ve come this far with little to no injury, and of course, we’d like to keep it that way.


The weather has remained relatively mild, although the winds have started to rock our site. Luckily the rain has been a rare threat, allowing us to work all possible days.


setting forth

With the end of the session, we have the skeletons ready for both the blocks of  the houses.  Speaking for the Monument valley team, the house is ready to welcome the insulation loaded on the trailer in SLC. The budget is real tight and it’s becoming more and more mandatory for us as a team to be innovative in our building strategies. Huge light bowl fixtures inverted to be used as kitchen and bathroom sinks, used wood pallets to be sanded and finished with appropriate coats/ colors and occasionally turned into gabions and hung up on cross bars to act as exterior cladding, huge 30” diameter rusted iron pipe salvaged from Scorup property (courtesy of previous bluff students), to be turned into a fireplace, are some of the ideas floating around for a while, awaiting materialization in next session. Most windows and doors that were readily salvaged and available are already in place. Ideas on sliding doors with cool details, which can save space, and offer possibilities of visual dynamics at junctions are been worked upon. The finish teams are trying to break banal assumptions over materials, which are disregarded conventionally by reinterpreting them in a different finish/ situation, which can add a new meaning not only to the material but also to the overall spatial quality in different contexts. The coming sessions demand much more creative against physical labor as the decisions would govern how the house would be perceived.


Feeling the Crunch

This week has been a little rough on the west water crew with our mishaps the first week of session getting us just enough disorganized to have a hard time getting  back on track.  We had a hold up on our floor with our plumbing, but the floor needs to be done to do walls, walls to do roof, roof to do the dried in like electrical… anyways, thankfully we are getting closer to our goals.  This session was supposed to include finish work on the first module and dried in construction on the second module.  It can get a little bit discouraging when it takes so long and we feel behind but remembering all that we learning each day and the difference our contribution can make helps a lot. We should be all dried in by the end of Saturday and we have some great mock ups going of some options for our cladding on the exterior as well as a few interior choices floating around.  It’s fun to see our spaces really coming together with our interior walls going up.  Sorry for the lack of pictures, but we have been working non-stop and so there isn’t much time between finishing up for the day and too dark to see the pictures in our schedules right now.  The schedule to get all finished up is starting to seem very real, and very close.  The schedule for the end of this session seems too close and hence we all feel the crunch, including our posts.  Hopeful by Saturday night we’ll have some great images and progress  to report.

Documenting History and Grinding Steel

Yesterday morning (3/23/11), Several of us went out to a local ranch that was originally homesteaded by the Decker Family. They had built a rock house there. Only the corner is left standing. When we arrived, the current owner had built his own small one room building with a small solar panel and he was using an out house. We asked him permission to document the current conditions of the buildings and corral on the ranch. He asked us not to come near his current residence or corral due to the fact that his cows were calving and he did not want us to upset them. We did receive permission to document a 1950′s era cabin built by one Bill Young that had owned the ranch for some time. The cabin was not in livable shape, but was being used for storage. The five of us sketched each elevation and some details.

After we came back, we were rushed to finish raising our exterior walls. The electrician was on his way and we needed to have everything in place so that he could place the wires. After the walls were built, we started on the interior walls as well.
Another big project that we had to take on was grinding out 10 x 10 in pieces of steel for our columns so that they could connect to our foundations. This was a lot of fun, but it took a lot of time. We were working on it well into the evening.

Westwater as of late…

Whew! Its been awhile as we have been working furiously on our 4th session. We have a lot to accomplish this session and we are well on our way. Last session was all about our living module, but we also spent a good deal of time working on social issues we had encountered…namely getting the Hutchens family homesite lease taken care of. A couple of us attended a Westwater community meeting and were blown away by the cultural differences we experienced. Once again we had an unexpected learning experience. This is a complex project in a very unique setting. This session is all about the private module…48 feet long and 12 feet wide. It has two bedrooms…one being very large for the girls and one and half baths. It has been fun to have Angie and the girls down to visit several times this last week and it always makes our work day better to see 4 little ones be so excited to get “their own bed”. We have completed the floor and all four walls. Its been interesting to deal with many issues we are so unfamiliar with like plumbing, stair construction, and structural steel columns and details. These things seemed simple to us before, but now that we are getting into the nitty gritty the realities must be dealt with….which is pretty much the motto of the Bluff experience!

Westwater Group Reflection

Katianne (right top) is discussing about how to set reinforce bars in the foundation


Architecture school is highly idealistic.  Theoretical projects are often created by students who have never worked with firm realities, let alone technicalities of the construction world.  As students, we can create idealistic buildings and in a drawing or a verbal presentation try to give justification to our process.  This is the world we think architecture is, this is the world we learn architecture isn’t in Bluff.  Details that will just “work themselves out” in our studio projects are now in our hands as we construct our beautiful concept. “Isn’t it interesting,” we remark to ourselves while building, “I had no idea this was how this was really built.”  Or even “how do we begin putting this thing together?”  The Westwater house had a beautifully unifying wall between its two modular pieces that was always very idealistic about how these things would all tie together with perfect precision.  Ideals are perfect and precise.  Construction? Not so much.


So what then do we do?   We “Bluff” it.   We design/build.  We take what we have created  that matches our conceptual world, stand with it, our limited but growing knowledge of the construction world, and our mentors and often look at it in dismay.  Then we work on what we can build realistically.  What is possible and how that is usually done.  Then we design again, and push the limits.  Say, if we want this, how can we make it work?  Our wall has changed quite a few times.  It is a constant struggle to find the balance between keeping the wall to its conceptual purpose and still buildable.


Sometimes there is compromise.  Currently our wall is part site built, part prefab on the module and part prefab off the module.


Sometimes things have to be one way or the other.  After having built the foundations for our module supports on site we ran into some problems and had to sacrifice an aesthetic to make our project buildable and transportable.  Our supports will be visible.  Not a work halting problem, but hard accept. Also, our original design had a lot of windows of precise sizes that were not practical to obtain, but the importance of our clearstory windows made them something we found a way to reallocate funds to and find cheap enough to keep our aesthetic, passive concept and comfort of.


Sometimes things are unconventional.  Like building the ceiling first and then the roof for a unique ceiling detail we wanted to create.


One of the things that continually draws people to architecture is the details.  “God is in the details,” is often quoted in studio.  Now we still are drawn by the details.  In the details is where we work out the problems, see the beauty and learn what architecture is.  It’s the ideals refined through reality, but true to their original purpose.  The experience of design build Bluff so far has been what all of us are here for.  Learning to build what we have learned to imagine.



Katianne Jones

Monument Valley Group Reflection

Eric(right) is measuring a wood for roof structure

It is here that we abstract many realities of life’s complications. Our group comes from several unique walks of life including artists, a cinematographer, an Indian exchange student, and a cabinet maker. For each of us, our time in Bluff represents a specific nod to a simpler, unfamiliar human nature. For many of us, this life is a drug. We feel more alive, we sleep earlier, we interact more directly, and we gain a respect for rural living. On a daily basis we awake to, drive by, and say goodnight to scenes to which most people only journey a few times in their lives.


Daily, we reconsider what it means to design and build. While some decisions can be made by one person in a matter of seconds, other ideas come about in a democratic and piecemeal process. We consistently confront the tension between the aesthetic/innovative aspirations and the budgetary realities of the building process.


This experience, however, is not just about us, but rather a community, on a macro scale, and a nuclear family, specifically. The Monument Valley house represents a gift to the educational community of the Navajo Nation by encouraging two dedicated educators to call this area home. Fostering the Don and Sharon Stryker’s move to the area provides students with access to two more highly educated and caring citizens who not only enjoy sharing their knowledge and their massive library of books, but also the opportunity to see a responsibly built home on the Rez, in their own backyard. It will hopefully inspire the community, in a grassroots sense, to change their living and building habits because of a newly sustained inquiry into environmental stewardship.


To paraphrase the thoughts of Colson Whitehead, we must cherish these surroundings and take the time while we are here: “pay tribute, for they are the caretakers of your reinventions; [they] are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next.” Bluff is something unique to which we will most certainly refer over the course of our lives. By living, eating, and sleeping on the same piece of land that, for now, houses our creation, this whole experience becomes integral to who we are and who we will become.


- Eric Harker

Bring on the Troubleshooting

So it seems as if the last few days we have had many issues come up that were totally unexpected. One thing we have learned is that there is a solution to everything. The first major change came with moving our big central wall to the interior of the module. This solved many issues but then created just as many. Then came the roof. The connection to the big wall required a large ledger and blocking with special hangers that we didn’t have, so we had to construct a temporary support. Much of our anxiety has been over meeting county code. We have had to reference the code books and the inspector on many decisions. The next major issue we had to resolve was our ceiling detail. We are placing plywood between the TJI’s. This plywood is an awesome detail and we spent tons of time sanding and finishing the wood. However, this detail created many issues as to when to sheath our roof, and place our insulation and wiring. While we tried to figure this out we worked on an outrigger design for our overhang, as well as putting in a window and putting up the finish ceiling. Its amazing how many things we have dealt with on this Westwater project. This week came a major social issue regarding the homesite lease for the Hutchins family. While attending a Westwater community meeting we learned Tyrone’s homesite lease was not signed and that it would need to be completed by the end of the week. This posed some serious issues due to the fact that Tyrone is currently in a correctional facility. Several of us ran around this week trying to get forms and meeting with Angie. In the end it all got resolved…hopefully. Dealing with the social, code, and structural issues has definitely been a learning experience for all of us.

frame on

Today was so beautiful in Bluff!  It was sunny all day, some people even busted out some shorts.  The Monument Valley house has the 4th wall framed out, and the Westwater house is nearly complete with their 3rd wall.  The 4th side was to be left open for transportation to our site, with a temporary structure in place so that left open on one side, the structure doesn’t collapse.  The Westwater house has a central wall that runs between the two sides of our home that the two modules were going to attach to as their 4th side.  This “wall”  was to be used to run all our plumbing and electrical through.  It was going to be built at the home site in Westwater, but tonight we discussed possibly building the 4th wall out instead so that we can do more on site here in Bluff.  We would have to stitch the “wall” together later so that it becomes 1 wall between the two modules, but we feel it will be better in the long run.

We also started working on our doors and windows, some of which we salvaged, and cleaned them up so that they are ready to be put in place when we need them.   Tomorrow we are going to go right into sheathing the last bit of the south wall of the south module, and tilt it into place!  Should be exciting.

cedar mesa hike

Mitch took about 13 of us on a hike at Cedar Mesa today, as it is our day off. We split into two groups, one heading down to the “Seven Kivas” and the other traversing to the “Citadel” cave dwelling. The hike to the Citadel was extraordinarily scenic and the weather for the day made it even better – snow, high wind gusts and all. Isn’t it great when education takes you on adventures like this! Mitch’s Magic School Bus. _totes