It’s mid-afternoon on the rolling grasslands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the remote southwest corner of South Dakota. In a field just off Highway 27, as dark clouds are gathering to the west on this hot summer day, three students from the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU)—Evan Palmer, Aaron Wirth, and Seth Lopez—are applying a brownish stain to the wood roof overhang of a straw-bale house. It’s quiet but for the sound of chirping birds and the occasional truck rolling down the two-lane road.
The students are building the house—1,000-square-feet and net-zero energy—as part of the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative, or NASHI. An interdisciplinary service-learning project launched in 2010 by Rob Pyatt, Assoc. AIA, a CU instructor and research associate, NASHI is dedicated to helping solve an intractable crisis on tribal lands: a lack of well-designed, affordable housing. At Pine Ridge, about 15 students in CU’s undergraduate program in environmental design have worked alongside construction-technology students at nearby Oglala Lakota College (OLC) to build the house. It's the first of four sustainable prototypes—designed by students with community input—for a future mixed-use development called Thunder Valley.
For Palmer, Wirth, and Lopez, all rising seniors at CU, this is their first visit to the reservation, home to an estimated 40,000 members of the Oglala Sioux (or Lakota) tribe. Back in the classroom at Boulder, they had spent some time researching Pine Ridge—its tragic history, its crushing poverty, its third-world housing conditions—but, as Palmer puts it, “Seeing it firsthand really gives you a whole different perspective.” He admits he was a little nervous when he arrived the day before with Pyatt and the other students, but the ice was broken when Lenny Lone Hill, a construction-technology instructor at OLC, invited them to participate in a traditional sweat lodge ceremony at his house.
Now, the students are perched on ladders putting the finishing touches on the project. “Watch the drips at the bottom,” says Pyatt, 47, walking the length of the north-facing porch. He’s wearing a black T-shirt, khaki shorts, low-cut hiking boots, and a baseball hat with a buffalo, CU’s mascot. His face is covered with several days’ worth of salt-and-pepper stubble. He says he’s lost count of how many trips he’s made between Boulder and Pine Ridge over the last couple of years. Much of the drive is on two-lane highways in isolated parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. “Easily more than 100,” says Pyatt, making a quick calculation in his head. “I end up zoning out, and then I’m here. It’s kind of scary. But I’ve got it down.”
Pyatt is friendly and engaging, but he has a quiet intensity that makes you want to pay attention to what he has to say. “Students just love him,” says JoAnn Silverstein, director of CU’s environmental design program. “There’s no other way to put it. They maintain ties with him as they go off to graduate school and careers.”
Pyatt was motivated to found NASHI in part because of its social mission. But he’s also a strong advocate for real-world architectural education, one that emphasizes community engagement in the design process and hands-on building experience. “The Beaux-Arts model of architectural education is over,” he often says. “At some point in your education, you have to deal with real people and real situations. You can’t just focus on your own artistic license.”
One of Pyatt's architectural heroes is the Australian Glenn Murcutt, Hon. FAIA, who won the 2002 Pritzker Prize for his environmentally sensitive houses rooted in Aboriginal culture. (Murcutt likes to say that his buildings “touch the earth lightly.”) As a graduate architecture student, Pyatt traveled to Australia to attend one of Murcutt’s annual master classes, which emphasize sustainable buildings—mostly houses—that blend with the environment.
“It completely turned my head around,” Pyatt says. “More than any other experience I’ve had, it made me realize there’s a humility lacking in architecture, and particularly in the way we teach architecture. We teach to the starchitect.” Pyatt found himself pulled in the opposite direction, to the less glamorous field of public impact architecture. NASHI, he says, came directly from this shift in thinking.
“How can architects work in a way that’s relevant to communities and solve real-world problems?” he asks. “Pine Ridge is perfect example. There are no architects working on the reservation, yet it’s a community that can benefit tremendously from design thinking.”
The Pine Ridge reservation has been called the poorest place in America. Unemployment is well above 80 percent. Annual per capita income in Shannon County, where much of the sprawling reservation is located, is just $6,286, making it the second-poorest county in the United States. (Buffalo County, also in South Dakota, is the poorest.) Many of the homes on the reservation are substandard and overcrowded. There’s a severe housing shortage, with more than 4,000 new homes needed to alleviate widespread homelessness and overcrowding.
Many residents live in shabby low-income houses built in the 1960s and 1970s by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They are located in clusters, like little suburban enclaves, scattered throughout the reservation. “The houses are poorly insulated, poorly constructed, and not really designed for the landscape or the climate,” says Pyatt. “I think HUD thought these homes would promote community,” he adds. “But there are some key components missing. No services, no community buildings, no mixed-used buildings. It turns out to be more like a housing project you would find in a city, but in a rural setting.”
The HUD houses were designed for small families, but many are now packed with 15 people or more, often multigenerational family members. No wonder an estimated 60 percent of the houses at Pine Ridge have black mold. “If you have 17 people living in a house,” Pyatt says, “and the bathroom is basically in use all the time, the humidity level is really high.” Lakota tribal leaders say the housing conditions on the reservation contribute to other problems, including domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, and crime.
When Pyatt first began developing NASHI, he realized it would be a mistake to design tribal housing for Pine Ridge without community input. “They have a long history of folks doing that kind of thing,” he says. “It’s the myth of the white savior who rides up on a white horse and saves the poor Indian. The hubris in that is something we’re trying to avoid.”
On one of his many trips to Pine Ridge, Pyatt met a young Lakota activist named Nick Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. Tilsen, 34, had helped start the nonprofit to confront cultural and economic issues on the Pine Ridge reservation. The idea, Tilsen says, was to stop blaming policymakers in Washington for the Lakota’s myriad problems and “take ownership of our own future.”
“Change won’t happen unless we roll up our sleeves and do it right here,” Tilsen told me.
One of the corporation’s dreams was to create a sustainable community of 100 new homes on a 34-acre plot of land near Highway 27. In 2010, Thunder Valley won a grant for nearly $1 million to help kick-start the effort. (Ironically, the funds came from the very government agency responsible for those misguided suburban-style homes found on the reservation: HUD. NASHI itself has received funding from HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research.) BNIM, based in Kansas City, Mo., did the master plan. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Boulder-based Studio NYL Structural Engineers also joined the project as collaborators.
CU students designed the first prototype as part of the interdisciplinary curriculum that Pyatt has developed at the university, with courses in community-based design, sustainable construction, and Native American issues. The students spend spring semester doing coursework and summer semester working at Pine Ridge. With the Thunder Valley project, their learning curve was steep. Their initial designs included what Pyatt calls “fun, cool stuff,” like flat roofs and “lots of glass.” “But there really isn’t any precedent for that at Pine Ridge,” he says. After participating in several design charrettes with Lakota tribe members, the students came up with a simpler design. From a distance, you might think NASHI’s straw-bale house to be a double-wide modular home (another common housing type at Pine Ridge). It’s rectangular, with a simple pitched roof made of red metal. But up close, you start to notice important differences, like the way the roof overhangs on all sides by 4 feet. That provides much-needed shade while directing water away from the frost-protected shallow foundation.
Pyatt concedes there was “a lot of discussion” at the charrettes about the roof overhang. After all, the HUD homes and the modular houses on the reservation barely have overhangs at all, let alone other shading features, which makes little sense given the relentless summer sun at Pine Ridge. (Temperatures often hit 100 F or more in July and August.) Some tribe members thought the overhang looked “funny.” They came around, however, after learning more about the sustainable benefits of the design.
The straw-bale walls are 18 inches thick, which helps create a super-insulated building envelope. Indeed, when I walked with Pyatt inside the unfinished house, it was probably 20 F cooler than it was outside. There’s a large open area for the kitchen, living room, and dining room, with two sliding-glass doors that open onto a small deck. A hallway leads to a generous bathroom, a storage closet, and two bedrooms. Heating and cooling will be provided by radiant floor tubing and a small mini-split. A photovoltaic array on the roof will supply much of the house’s electricity. To help prevent mold from forming, there’s no basement and no attic.
The next three prototypes will be identical in size and shape but will be built with different construction methods and materials: structural insulated panels, compressed earth block, and advanced wood frame. All are designed as starter homes for first-time, low-income homeowners. Initially, the straw-bale house will be a model home, but eventually it will sold for about $100,000. At full buildout, Tilsen says, the Thunder Valley community will have 31 single-family homes, 24 rental townhomes, and 45 rental apartments, plus additional space for retail, community, and light-industrial use. It will be the third-largest community on the Pine Ridge reservation.
But Thunder Valley is not just about housing, Tilsen says. It’s also about creating much-needed jobs on the reservation. “It’s an empowerment project,” he says.
Thunder Valley’s office is in a modular building about 100 yards from the NASHI house at Pine Ridge. For the last three summers, this is where Pyatt and his CU students have bunked when working on the reservation. They sleep on the floor, share two bathrooms and one shower, and prepare meals in a small kitchen. By next summer, Pyatt hopes to have an actual bunkhouse constructed at Thunder Valley.
Katie Stege, who graduated from CU in spring of 2012 and spent the summer as an intern with the NASHI program, recalls a typical day working at Pine Ridge. “Some days we’d get up at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, and then walk out the door to the construction site. We’d work on the house in the morning, take a short lunch, and finish up in the afternoon. Then we’d be back in the office. We’d take turns cooking dinner, go to bed early, and then get up the next morning and do it again.”
By the time Stege left in mid-August 2012, the foundation was poured, the exterior walls were framed out, and the straw bales were in place. “The work was hard, and the heat was difficult,” says Stege, 23, who just finished her first year of graduate studies at the Yale School of Architecture. “But it was a great experience. Architecture is so much more than just design. It’s about people and building relationships and really understanding how people live. That’s really stuck with me.”
For Stege, NASHI confirmed her desire to pursue a career in low-income community design, perhaps at the policy level. Students in the program, she says, often “find purpose or perspective they had otherwise been lacking in their education.”
Janna Ferguson, 24, grew up in a Denver suburb. As a high school student, she traveled with a faith-based group, Experience Mission, to build a preschool in Belize. By the end of her sophomore year at CU, she had decided she wanted to become an architect and enrolled in the environmental design program. But it wasn’t until she signed up for the NASHI program that she knew just what kind of architect she wanted to be. “I’ve learned how important it is to design with a community, not for a community,” she says. “It’s the architect’s mentality to think they know everything, and the client is kind of irrelevant. And in some ways, that’s what architectural education teaches.”
Ferguson graduated in 2012 but has continued to work with Pyatt, as a teaching assistant for the NASHI program and as an intern with Pyatt’s private design practice, Pyatt Studio Architecture. (Separate from NASHI, Pyatt and his partner, Kimberly Drennan, AIA, have designed 18 sustainable houses for the Pine Ridge tribal housing authority. Six are nearly completed.) Ferguson’s hoping to attend graduate school in architecture at the University of Kansas, in part because of Studio 804, the university’s nonprofit design/build program run by Dan Rockhill.
Back at Pine Ridge, as the students continue staining the straw-bale house, Pyatt keeps an eye on the darkening sky. Ominous pouches of mammatus clouds, often associated with extreme weather, begin to hang over the prairie landscape. Snapping photos, Pyatt spots what appears to be a funnel cloud starting to form. “Guys,” he says, “let’s pack up.” They load up Pyatt’s Subaru Outback, and hit the road. In six hours, they’ll be back in Boulder, but they’ll return to Pine Ridge often throughout the summer (with additional CU students) to finish the straw-bale house and begin construction on the next prototype, built with structural insulated panels.
Pyatt is quick to acknowledge that NASHI won’t solve all of Pine Ridge’s housing needs. The problem is simply too complex, too entrenched. But he’s made a long-term commitment to the community, and he intends to keep coming back with his students for years to come.
Next summer, he plans to expand the program to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. CU students will live in dorms and work with Haskell students to design and build a straw-bale demonstration house on campus. Meanwhile, this winter students in Boulder will create a 600-to-800-square-foot prefabricated prototype house for Pine Ridge, designed as an “ultra affordable” dwelling for one or two people. In the works are housing projects with tribes in Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico.
Eventually, Pyatt would like for NASHI to become an interdisciplinary institute at CU, with students and professors from multiple disciplines, though aspiring architects would continue to be the core student population. The university, he believes, has a “moral and ethical responsibility” to respond to the Native American housing crisis. “And we have the ability.”
“There’s a tremendous need, in reservations all across the west,” Pyatt says. “And we’re just scratching the surface.”