Design Build Bluff is an incredibly special program. I have truly grown as a person and as an architect in the last six months, and believe that I am now much better prepared to enter the workforce. When I began DBB, I thought I would learn about construction methods and power tools. I thought I knew how to work in a group, and exactly what to expect from my peers and myself. Many of my preconceptions were proved wrong throughout the semester. I did gain valuable practical architectural knowledge, however, the intangibles that I’ve acquired through this experience are worth so much more.
Patience is a Virtue:
If I had a dime for every time I heard the phrase: “It’s easy, no big deal. It’ll go quickly.” in the last 4 months, I’d be a much wealthier person than I am now. If ever someone says that phrase to you in construction, or really in any point in the architectural design process, they are lying. Approaching any situation with the mindset that it will be simple will get you into trouble. It is important to understand the complexities of the project, as much as possible before you begin. That is difficult, but I found that if I thought something would be simple, and it wasn’t, I would get frustrated much more quickly. Trying to do things hastily often leads to mistakes, which only prolong the project.
2 Heads are Better Than 1 (and 4 hands are better than 2):
I am a person who likes to work alone. I fully believe in the motto: “If you want it done right, do it yourself”. I know that in the field of architecture, I will never create something on my own. It is simply not possible. Bluff has taught me a lot about working with other people, in anticipation of doing so for the rest of my career. Using your peers as a soundboard for ideas, or as a checkpoint to make sure your plan is not completely off track is very helpful. So many times, I thought I had it all figured out and someone would catch a major mistake in my calculations, or have a much better way to solve a problem. Genuinely seeing the benefits of having many solutions, not just one, was a huge part of DBB. Twenty-two students filled with ideas proved to be crucial to our process. True, not all ideas are good, and sorting through them can be difficult, but in the end it produced a better home than any single one of us could have imagined on our own.
Change is for the Better: Relinquish Control
Looking back at the drawings of the Rain House from 4 months ago, I am surprised by the changes that were made, but also at how similar it still is. We had a very specific plan of action, myself included. I thought that I had it all figured out, in terms of window placement, and as it turns out, I did not. Some of the glass we thought we could used, ended up to be cracked before I even got to it. The sizes of openings were altered at the last minute and we had to make adjustments accordingly. In the end, I believe whole-heartedly that all the changes made are for the better. At the time, however, I did not think so. The first change that happened sent me into a tizzy for a couple days, trying to problem solve my way out of it. By the end of our time in Bluff, a broken piece of glass, a modified dimension, or an altered design, was something I could handle (not always easily or gracefully, but handled nonetheless). The ability to disconnect from the design in an emotional sense was a struggle for me. The capacity to be flexible and to think on your feet is a valuable one though, and something that I will take with me throughout the rest of my career.
Transparency is your Friend:
One of the obvious qualities of glass is its transparency. It is also an important aspect of teamwork. Being open about one’s plans and intentions allows for healthy discussion. Keeping decisions secret, only leads to division and anger within the group. We were all guilty of having opinions and ideas that were only shared behind closed doors, myself included. However, I learned just how important it is to keep everyone in the know, so that no one is shocked or dismayed later. Transparency is the simplest way to prevent any “drama” from happening.
Don’t Bend till you Break:
I was truly terrified of how fragile glass is when I appeared in Bluff at the end of the summer. What I should have been more concerned with, perhaps, is the fragility of my peers and myself. We all learned to be flexible, whether we wanted to or not, but there is a breaking point, so matter how flexible you are. Acknowledging your own limitations as well as others is as important as pushing the envelope. Part of working with a team, is being able to read your teammates and know when to let up or push harder. It is a tough task since every person is different in this respect, but listening to the unspoken signals from those around you is a valuable skill to have.
– Halle Hagenau
There is confidence that comes with mixing and pouring a concrete foundation by hand, cutting plywood with a table saw, and hammering away at a 2×6. Along with learning new skills and how a building goes together, constructing a house for family in need was the biggest social cause I had ever contributed to. The knowledge I gained at DBB could not be learned by reading a book or by building bass wood models at my studio desk. DBB is where you get your hands dirty, where you learn how the corners meet, and where you make the connection between architect and builder. I attended DDB’s fall class of 2010 as a student through the University of Colorado at Denver and returned to Bluff, Utah Fall 2011 as an design-build intern. I would return two more times if I had the chance.
Students looking for jobs in architecture over the past few years are aware of the climate of the economy and the competition involved in getting a job. I’ve been told that all resumes start to read the same when students coming out of school have the same list of computer software knowledge. It’s a fact that this is important, but employers are looking for something more that sets you apart. In my experience the topic of choice in all my interviews was my experience at DBB. I could not be more thankful for my days spent on site and how it has improved my working knowledge of architecture in the office. I’m currently working as an Intern Architect at Cottle Carr and Yaw Architects in Aspen, Colorado.
– Wren Hoffman: Windcatcher House Student 2010 // DBB Intern Fall 2011
It’s a good idea, reality-based education. Architecture internship – any sort of internship – is founded on it. And even that doesn’t usually include actual building, beginning with nothing more than an expanse of landscape and need for adequate, reasonable shelter. First, design is based in mindfulness, drawn upon a living, breathing client, in these cases a client born facing a steeply uphill playing field, if one could even conceive of the Navajo reservation as anything other than political and socioeconomic jail, the time whiled away in alcohol and in a nearly absolute, gainful employment abyss. Beautiful in its ruggedness if you’re just passing through – Anasazi ruins around every bend, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the canyon formerly known as Glen, now Lake Powell, all of which add to the learning, about self and place and everything between, alighting, one hopes, upon responsibility, something that with the advents of cheap, bleeding energy and the Me generation has backslid countless vertical feet from its American peak of 110-percent, one-for-all engagement during World War II. Responsibility. Welcome, DesignBuildBLUFF, based in what is hoped and expected to be a next new reality and understanding.
My tenure at shepherding the program has been a blast; I’ve loved it all, but for a few, of the hundred and fifty or so students who’ve passed through, as we worked hard, side by side, scratched heads, laughed, ate, drank, played games, played mostly innocent tricks, and laughed some more, poring over sheaves of details, and details scratched into lumber, concrete and sand. I remember a lot of the few thousand days; I have notes and graphs and schedules and calendars, some never realized, others in spades – balance, of course – and my own scratching of head in tens of journals, and I still can conjure specific difficulties met and the triumphs celebrated. Yeah, ten thousand hours, per Malcolm Gladwell. I should be someone somewhere. I might be defined by the DBB alumni, and I’d be glad for that, masterly talent and confidence given. I’m happy that I’ve done it. As they say, one has to let his children leave home, and one hopes, doesn’t he, they go away to college. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt. DBB, the program that constructs what is usually only imagined architecture for the Navajos, has gone to the Utes. The College of Architecture+Planning has accepted DesignBuildBLUFF as a new assembly of appendages. CA+P is taking the reins and the ultimate responsibility at last. I’m upstairs, more or less kicked by myself, and smiling.
One of the bandstands nearly killed me our very first year, at the end of what was then the design/build studio, one semester, three hours three days a week. Baby-stepping. A 300-pound steel capital atop a twelve-foot tall, twelve-by-twelve column fell directly at me as we failed to manually muscle it vertical. I was saved from being crushed and likely mangled by a steel tube railing, stouter than you’d think, its structural capacity probably just intuited (as can be many sizes and connections), fine by me. It may have contributed to my recent back surgery, but the incident would be listed along with many others in the rolling credits. Not to mention the more chronic examples of cause. The summer we began building a home for Thupten Kunga and his family of seven Tibetan refugees, a student told the television reporters, “Basically, all we did was dig.” The eight intrepid students who came to Bluff that first, experimental year (tell me which one isn’t) renamed the exercise “design/dig”. Some weeks ago today physical therapists performed a pantomime for me, how not to shovel snow – I’d spent a decade doing the exact same movement moving gravel, one of DBB’s more expert Zen koan repetitions, like the Karate Kid’s wax on, wax off. Never forget that this whole gig is merely a path. Humility is the most important virtue that we teach, along with persistence and patience, and humor, and…eventually there is a house you’ve built, with running water and streaming electrons, made up of maybe millions of moments. And like Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional alien race from the planet Tralfamadore, who are immortal in the sense that they skip infinitely in time back and forth, forth and back, at will to any selective point of their life, death and birth included, we students of the design and build process are allowed the same dance. And I think we dig it. (About the millions of moments I’m fairly sure. I named my small architecture firm/studio gigaplex, a term for ten to the billionth power, the number, it is said, of possible states of mind a human’s traipses through in an average lifetime.)
What other manner of education can match the worthwhile of exploration? Addition and multiplication memorization come to mind, the periodic table and anatomy, and even those are booster rockets into whatever space you might choose to explore. At DesignBuildBLUFF you are not trying to please a professor’s certain brand of aesthetic, nothing rote about it; tips toward the safe use of tools, sure, but nothing spoon fed to barf back up. Questions, none dumb, are often answered by the aural equivalent of mirrors. As much as anything, this is a novel about self-discovery, diving in and dog paddling, like the caterpillar, to the butterfly. Students‘ lives are changed; they all write about it. To do is to understand, as one, or all, of those Chinese ancient dudes once said, confidently. Like they say today, it’s a brand. Only a little bit disguised, we preach; I still wholeheartedly endorse the fact that it’s a good idea, reality-based education.
The student designs his or her own course (I recognize that the possessive pronoun “their” is acceptable now that women are human, too, even included in the catch tag “you guys”, also weird, yet easy, but adding the extra words still sounds more poetic, and we’re in the midst of courting [but, some would ask, when are we not?]). It is simple. It is the kinder, gentler, more optimistic version of giving them enough rope, and yes, they get hung up. But they will discover their own trail back, or better, forward, and that very act of bushwacking is indelibly stained on a consciousness. Do you merely not get in their way? There are untold nuances to mentorship, to the making of and then enforcing a tablet of rules. Nimbleness needs to pervade, and the spirit over the letter. And the Force.
Be it with the College of Architecture+Planning. I’m alongside, on board, on the non-profit board, upstairs (my father always talks about the guy “upstairs”, so, hey, I can be your Bette Midler windpipes, beneath wings, too, if like her, there is also “ha-ha”, to quote textinglish). Frank Ferguson, one of the F’s in the Salt Lake City architecture firm FFKR, a guest lecturer while I had lay prone to the muse, once mightily professed, scoldingly, at the jury’s presenter, Architecture is a matter of life or death! It’s limiting, I think, and institutional, an anvil squeezing the neck, like a Hell Week interpretation of architectural studio culture, chain them to their desks, feed speed. No, I would shorten the shouting: Architecture is a matter of Life. I called it Life-specific design. Any kind of life; any kind of animal; any kind of vegetable; its acronym, a synonym for architecture, opens your mind.
The goal: the certainly new, hopefully improved (finger+finger) DesignBuildBLUFF. Give us your weak, tired, huddled masses to house. Give us your time and/or money in order to just do it, or – as I’ve said many times – do justice.
– Hank Louis
DesignBuildBLUFF begins another iteration of the education of the architect, working with Ellen, a single 73-year-old member of the Mexican Water Chapter near the Arizona border. Responding to the site conditions (specifically to wind and sand), the house wedges in both plan and section, to split the wind around the house and prevent sand from accumulating at its east facing entry. Utilizing a traditional concept of in-filled structure, the house’s exterior double-walls are up to 28″ thick, as framed 2x4s sandwich straw bales that provide a wall system with an R-38 insulation value. The client’s gregarious nature is recognized via a generous living room and two porches that will welcome over her family living in the nearby houses. The $25,000 out-of-pocket-cost house is already under construction and is due for completion the first week of May. Over the course of the first session, the foundation was completed and construction of the 2×4 walls began.
The close of another successful semester shines on DesignBuildBLUFF as the Rain House completed construction mid-December. 20 UC Denver students and 2 Southern Utah University Engineering students spent four months in Bluff collaborating during the design and build proving that architects and engineers can live and work in harmony!
Lorraine Toney and her five children moved into their finished home just in time to celebrate Christmas and New Years. The ‘Rain House’, named after Lorraine’s nickname, is fully functional with running water and electricity. Completed for the total of $36,560, the 1200 SF house includes three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, living and laundry.
The adapted design parti ‘Bar Box’ is distinctly expressed as a reclaimed wood slatted box intersects a rectangular concrete form. The hand mixed concrete walls were poured bucket by bucket in 12” lifts, each layer subtly different in color to achieve the horizontal aesthetic of the surrounding red mesas. A void, defined by south and north face curtain walls, breaks the rhythm of the linear concrete mass providing a clear view through the house framing the North Mesa. The ‘Bar Box’ sits comfortably under a low pitched shed roof as it blends into landscape.
Oriented on the length of north/south axis, the south elevation provides 20% glazing to effectively heat the concrete floors by solar gain during winter months. To prevent any heat loss during the night hours, two interior sliding walls are designed to cover the large south and north facing curtain walls. The concrete wall is constructed with a 3” exterior concrete veneer and a 6” interior concrete structure. The two sandwich a thermal break of 3” rigid foam insulating the interior. A dramatic roof overhang provides appropriate shading during the summer to protect the interior from harsh southern exposure.
For the first time, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado worked with DBB students to digitally model the house’s design in energy modeling software known as Energy Plus. Such software abled student’s to calculate the house’s winter and summer temperatures. Energy Plus calculates the house’s temperatures to maintain 60 degrees in winter and 70 degrees in summer.
Upon entry through an east facing door, one emerges into a dimly lit, low ceiling foyer providing an intimate transition from the exterior into naturally illuminated living and sleeping spaces. The open plan of the living space includes a kitchen and family room that visually extend into a northern exterior deck. A large curtain wall separates this indoor/outdoor space. The intersecting wood slatted box cuts through the interior kitchen and emerges through the north face running parallel to the deck. Designed for privacy, Lorraine’s bedroom lies on the west, opposite her children’s east end bedrooms. Each bedroom has a small sitting nook cut through the concrete wall providing a small space to read, write or relax. Similar to the intersecting box, the ‘pop outs’ emerge in the exterior concrete wall finished with reclaimed wood slats.
– Cindy Bithell
Interior view looking east