Little Water

Design Build Bluff is excited to announce the completion of Little Water, its 13th house.

The home was completed this past May of 2012. The crew of 12 University of Utah student’s named Little water after the surrounding region. Recipients of this semester’s build were Ben and Sara Jones. Little Water is a unique addition to the Design Build Bluff family as it is ADA accessible. As an elderly couple with limited mobility, Ben and Sara required full ADA-accessibility to accommodate their needs, a DesignBuildBLUFF first. Completed in just over five months, the 1,060 square foot Little Water features two bedrooms, one ADA bathroom/shower and an open kitchen/living space. Spirits were high as all the hard work the students endured commenced in a celebratory dinner party with Ben and Sara.

The student’s goals were to explore and experiment with passive heating and cooling techniques. Overall, the students designed five different systems to ensure the house would function in both winter and summer. These explorations include an insulated thermal berm wall, a straw bale wall, a solar oculus for natural ventilation and cooling, a ventilated second roof and a rocket stove.

The berm wall was not only an aesthetic design decision but also a way to moderate temperature as well as protect the structural block wall from expansion and compression with temperature change. In order to do so, the berm needed to be fully insulated. In section, the berm was built up part way with soil and then covered with a series of layers, all contributing to overall function of the wall. The bottom layer of soil was covered with straw, cardboard, a waterproofing membrane, foam, landscape cloth, gravel and finally a 3’ layer of top soil. Terraces were added and necessary to prevent the berm from erosion and washing away.

The other exterior walls are R-36 insulated straw bale. This straw bale wall acts as a thermal barrier holding heat in during the winter and keeping heat out during the summer. Here in Bluff we are able to gather clay locally which was used to finish the interior and exterior straw bales with a natural earth plaster.

The solar oculus is designed aesthetically as a light well and functionally as a natural ventilation system. During the hot summer, the lower clear story windows and oculus vents can be opened and through the properties of ventilation, allow the hot air to escape from the oculus vents.. As a back up cooling method, an evaporative cooling system was installed with ducts running through the berm and into the house much similar to earth tubes. The air circulated into the house will be cooled by both the evaporative cooler and the earth in the berm.

In addition to these systems, a secondary roof structure provides an air barrier between the metal finished roof and the building envelope’s roof structure. As the finished roof heats throughout the day, the air barrier blocks heat from being absorbed into the house.

The heating source for Little Water is a mass rocket stove constructed of earth block and cob. This stove requires only small pieces of wood as the fuel source. The exhaust heat from the fire is drawn through 35’ of stove pipe that runs inside the clay bench. As the heat travels through the stove pipe, it radiates through the bench. After several hours of burning, the entire block bench will have absorbed enough heat to radiate into the surrounding areas.

Final images of the house were taken by Park City photographer Scot Zimmerman. Design Build Bluff would like to thank Scot for donating his time and photographs to our program! These images can be found on our Blog as well as Facebook page.



3form + dbB

3form, one of DesignBuildBluff’s most familial, philosophical and economic partners, began in Salt Lake City in 1991 “with a vision to create design-driven materials with an unyielding commitment to environmental responsibility.” It has been known around these parts mostly for its production of sustainable translucent panels integrally sandwiching just about anything, organic or no, depending upon its gauge, and yet you get the feeling, talking to any handful of young designers cruising around the Salt Lake City headquarters that they might just give it a whirl, you get the feeling that they might just give anything a whirl. Whatever. Challenge them. For a thin enough wood veneer to appease the infamously detail oriented Liz Diller, of the New York based firm Scofidio, Diller + Renfro, to enliven the interior of the remodel for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Ruben Suare combed the globe to find the suitable machinery. As always in the creative realm stories vary about the idea’s germ (there was a great article in the New Yorker about the project) — we humans are political animals, alas — but the result shouts out brilliance. That the unveiling and buzz of this high profile commission (for Ms. Diller, no project’s profile lingers much below the whole blue sky, really) dovetailed with the company’s acquisition by global giant Hunter Douglas, 3form sprinted away from the blocks in 2007, and today it blows past everyone else running that loop like they were walking off the old three martini lunch.

If you haven’t already, go directly to the film Art & Copy (yes, it was shown a couple of years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, source for the documentary Nile). The tagline for the movie when it was being marketed at Sundance: Fail Harder. The spectrum at these creative institutions (perhaps oxymoronic) is no color line, but more a circle, or a sphere, or all of the electron paths of the craziest, heaviest atom, or a child’s imagination of string theory, where ‘hitting it out of the park’ might even be rubbing legs with ‘totally sucking wind’. 3form is one of those intersections where there is little discernible difference between work and play. It’s a place where a derivative is on one of the roller coaster paths described above, or even more irrelevant, as defined by Webster’s: Unoriginal.

Place is colorful, flexible, spacious. Don’t get too used to it, though. Tomorrow there might be a pingpong tournament in the conference room. Commercial contract furniture interior designers have always baffled me, especially considering the great innovations conjured, molded, refined and then packaged in the semi-organized chaos at offices like, say, Apple. I’ve always wondered about developers and/or architects or even ineffectual urban planners (they once worked for the developers, or will) who suspend reason to try to let them create a Mediterranean hill town by snapping fingers, sweeping their hammed fists, with an air- and water-tight tome of CC&Rs that will, at their luckiest, define this unfortunate Seaside gone tangibly viral, having been interesting once, like the town I live in, Park City, Utah, in its uniform disparity or disparate uniformity, which is my definition of the glass slipper.

Talley Goodsen’s founding 3form vision, quoted above, imbues the people, the place and the product. Fortunately for us, DesignBuildBLUFF and Talley bumped into one another at a Thai restaurant in an awful strip mall somewhere near Salt Lake Community College. Kick-ass 3form panels were the architecture student candy of the era, like alucobond reigned when I was sleeping over at the Graduate School of Architecture (which, you have to admit, sounds so much more ivy-covered than CA+P). But, I’ll admit, being dumbfounded by the hedge fund and Too Big To Fail guy’s senses of the word, moreover concept of a derivative, few design collaborations are made in places less funky and a little less scary and terrifying (in all respects) than great Asian food in seas of asphalt. They way it developed, however, is that we mostly took; there was the bone pile, of course, and the pallets anchored by aluminum sheets spent from the compression of the ecoresin panels (co-polyester recycled content product), outside of copper the gold of the still somewhat seedy recycling world. The aluminum panels have become one of the signature of a DesignBuild BLUFF home – check it out. Oh, sorry, I forget that we’re preaching to the choir in this e-publication, so have everyone in your Facebook, Twitter or Linked In like us or be a fan or comment or…just check it out – although I know of two, certainly, there are very few people we offend. Maybe we should try to offend more in that no publicity is bad publicity, I don’t know.

I do know, however, that Talley and his wildly talented and wholly committed 3form gang only bring the public joy while at the same time caring deeply about the survival of our species.

Horizons at 3form have expanded in every direction. DesignBuildBLUFF has been offered the opportunity to take this collaboration to the human growth hormone level. No longer just a give and take relationship, we’re going to take this thing to design. We’ve been invited to work together to design and use the 3form company’s products in search of their ultimate capacity, utility and delight. Our answer, of course: bring it on. Like us now; like us and them even better next spring.

Rachel Cusimano: Desgin Build + Creativity

It seemed so much easier as a child to be imaginative. Did I lose it? Or was it obscured amongst textbooks and trying to be creative strictly on the terms of the person paying or grading me? It has been quite different this semester in Bluff. Terry Tempest Williams once said, “Let go of cultural biases and societal constraints, taking time to experience earth as it is, raw and self-defined.” I feel I have done this, in both an environmentalist and builder standpoint; paired with either a hammer or shovel in my hand, over the last four unyielding months. I’ve attained plenty of knowledge and exposure to morals such as this.
Design-build practice is a positive approach to building for the future of the architectural profession. In addition, the need for low-income housing, unfortunately, will always be an issue. Sustainable building strategies, regional and recycled materiality, smart construction, and minimal waste; all these things we’ve accomplished over the course of the program with our bare hands and creative minds, all are the future of embracing our beautiful planet as well as making a positive impact on those less fortunate.
–Rachel Cusimano, Little Water House -2012

Nakai House

The Nakai house surrounds a bookshelf and captures the spirit of the client and the surrounding homestead.  A parabolic roof that seems to move with the wind and the surrounding dunes rises above a spandrel glass rain screen that reflects the desert landscape.  Vertical tongue and groove cedar wraps the house above the band of glass and abuts to the knife edge overhang of the corten steel roof. A ribbon window frames Cedar Mesa perfectly while seated at the kitchen table and a window seat projects outward beneath the shade of a tree, a place for Lorraine to read.  The house is divided by a large bookshelf running the length of the home with a long slender public corridor and the more private bed and bath accessible through the bookshelf. One of the few DBB homes to complete construction in 5 months and the first to end the semester with the lights on. The DBB construction process is often as unpredictable as the weather in the Desert Southwest; the 8 UCD students successfully navigated all obstacles along the way resulting in a home that reflects the very landscape it resides within.

Little Water: Completion is Upon Us

The end of the semester is upon us… creating a nostalgic reflection of the last 4 months, one cannot help but absorb, look back, and see all that was taught and learned (even for staff members). As the days have gone by, new relationships formed between students and the incredible transformation of creativity was brought to life. Through the course of the semester we see the highest highs and the lowest lows; sometimes even bringing tears of stress.

With the final work day finished, the students can celebrate a great success and will leave Bluff with the satisfaction of knowing their home is complete. To complete a home in one semester is a huge goal to reach, and they have done a tremendous job. It is at this moment we can all look back and say ‘this was worth it!’

Final features of the Little Water project include an insulated berm wall system, a solar chimney, a rocket stove, a second roof ventilation system, a bread oven and ADA accessibility. This home will be fully powered with electricity this week with the water line shortly after. Ben and Sara are scheduled to move in early June.

AIA Honor Award



DBB is the recent recipient of the Utah Chapter of the American Institute Architects Honor Award, the organization’s highest design honor.  The Whitehorse was constructed by 18 University of Utah students and floats above the desert floor on 8 reclaimed telephone poles.  Steel c-channels support the wood pallet rain screen and recycled aluminum sheets that make up the building’s exterior.  The earth plaster walls and aspen t&g ceiling surround the rocket stove, completing a cozy interior space. The home was selected by an independent jury of architects from outside the state of Utah, in competition with several other projects from around the state.


Current Project Status : LITTLE WATER

Current project site

12 Students from the University of Utah are under way with DesignBuildBluff’s 13th home. Little Water, named for its location, is a unique addition to DBB. The home will be built into the earth with nearly 130 ft of berm wall. This is a DBB first. Students completed their second session down in Bluff. They successfully completed the berm wall’s digging, construction and plastering. Over the course of two weeks the students laid nearly 800 CMU blocks weighing just under 23,000 pounds. Trenches for the water and septic lines were dug and now await their plumbing lines. A temporary electrical box is wired and connected to provide power to the site during construction. Final days of the week were spent in preparation for next session. Formwork for the foundation and slab-on-grade is placed and ready to go. The concrete pad will be poured when the students return in one week. Design Build Bluff would like to extend a big thanks to Big-D Construction for their large donation of materials, as well as Kyle Mullikin for his engineering services. These contributions have helped make this session a great success!

- Cindy Bethell



The new DesignBuildBLUFF website has launched with bolder images, more content, and more ways to interact with DBB. The website was inspired by the design and construction processes of the DBB students. We wanted the website to be as engaging as one of the iconic DesignBuildBLUFF houses (if that is possible). The idea is to cultivate experimental design with the end user always in mind.

We wanted to engage our fans by offering up more current and insightful information of our projects and events. The new site offers a fan page, where the latest information from the Twitter-sphere and images from Facebook are streamed seamlessly to our site. Additionally, all updates on DBB news and events can be viewed from our community fan page.


Browse through our past projects and visit each one’s photo gallery which showcase images of the entire process through its completion and blessing ceremony. You can almost witness the story of the students’ growth and how they become part of their client’s family, each one teaching and experiencing life lessons that will never be forgotten.


DBB is a program focused on its people: the students, families, Bluff community and staff. This new site, however, is for the people who support us, follow us, and “Like” us, as well as those who might be just discovering us. Our blog is flush with student perspectives from the past and current projects, DBB news & events, current status, and you can’t forget the crowd-pleasing, must-read musings of our philosophical leader, Hank Louis.


Hopefully this new website will help share the rich history and culture of DBB, as well as create some excitement for our future. We not only encourage you to interact with our new site, but to be a part of our growing community and bright future.


Enjoy the site, and feel free to share with your friends and colleagues. Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts with us; we welcome your feedback and use it to make future improvements.


Happy surfing.


- Whalen Louis & Atsushi Yamamoto

The Bluff Campus Wish List:

Need to clear your garage or office of unused items?  We have homes for them.

And..if you happen to be Mr. Bosch, Ms. Skillsaw, Uncle DeWalt or perhaps Joe Carhartt.. we are diligently seeking corporate tool and equipment sponsors for 2011 and beyond. Visit for more information.



The List:

Tool trailer: a large towable organizational trailer.

Medium sized tractor with loader bucket and ability to add PTO attachments


Miller renegade 180 welder generator or similar

Work Gloves

Sawstop 10 inch contractor’s model safety table saws

General Building Supplies

Laptop computer, Mac or PC

Solar photovaltaic augmentation

Refrigerators and deep freezers

16 Rolls Battery 4000 series S-460 deep cycle lead acid batteries (6v) or similar.

Gift cards to Home Depot, Cosco & Staples

Credit Cards for fuel

Gas powered towable concrete mixer, 9 cubic foot capacity or larger

Subscriptions to: Dwell, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Mother Earth News. Homepower magazine, Nuts and Volts, Architectural Digest, Dezeen, Metropolis, Native Peoples, Native Americas.

Pellet stove and installation piping

Large garage door for campus workshop

Copy machine & printer capable of 11 x 17 or larger printing.

A small plane. (It is a wish list after all)