FARMINGTON — Set against the backdrop of a striking desert landscape, most homes on the Navajo reservation are less than striking.

Except the homes built by DesignBuildBLUFF.

DesignBuildBLUFF, a nonprofit based in Bluff, Utah, builds cutting-edge homes for low-income Navajo families living in or near the southeast corner of Utah.

Founded in 2000 by Hank Louis, an adjunct architecture professor at the University of Utah, the program has built more than a dozen custom-made homes, all of them designed by graduate architecture students on a shoestring budget.

"We keep the budget low so that the creativity comes out," Louis said.

Each house costs about $30 to $50 per square foot to build, as opposed to the average $150 per square foot. The homes' final construction cost is about $25,000, though the group also has been lucky enough to receive donations from area companies that want to help.

The end product rarely reflects the cost, as the homes usually look like structures straight out of a high-end architectural design magazine.

Though made of a medley of materials, each house has a sense of rustic chic. Many houses have details that reflect the Navajo use of earth tones by using clay or wood. They also have an appreciation for direction. Each home has an entry to the east, an age-old Navajo practice that is a nod to the daily rising sun.

"Everyone has their own twist on the what the Navajo tradition is, even the Navajo," Louis said, noting that each home is different.


Some are shaped like hogans, the traditional, octagonal Navajo homes, and others are shaped more like single-wide trailers, though in the style of a Frank Lloyd Wright tree house built on the ground.

On the inside, some have libraries, others dance areas, and many central fireplaces or stove areas. On the outside, some have recycled shelves, recycled mailboxes, and old printers' drums with the images and print still showing in reverse.

Families' priorities — such as space, efficiency, and style — are continuously taken into account by the students who design them.

"There's an immediate bond between the students and family," Louis said.

The students, who usually are from University of Utah or University of Colorado, take an entire semester just to learn about the design options that they have in the rural desert Southwest. They learn about what Navajo families require of a home, and what materials they can use without going over budget.

During the second semester, the students live in Bluff for an entire term. They see the home site, meet the family, and collaborate to build the house and make it a reality.

"It was the best educational experience I ever had," said Jen Lindley, a spring 2011 student who now works at an architecture firm in Utah. "It was the only time where I felt like I got a real, practical experience."

Most architectural students rarely get to leave the drawing board during college, Lindley said, which makes it hard for them to later understand the contractors and workers with whim they eventually must work.

"I don't think I learned more in grad school than I learned in that entire semester," she said.

Most of the students who attend the non-traditional program feel that it is a rare, special experience. Students, all of whom have been graduate students so far, get to stay in a turn-of-the-century ranch home that Louis bought when he first started the venture.

In the beginning, only eight students were enrolled. These days, Louis usually has about 22 students, the maximum number, during each semester. He hopes eventually to expand by reaching out to universities in Arizona and New Mexico, the two other states that overlap with the Navajo Nation.

The program also hopes to expand on the reservation.

DesignBuildBLUFF just finished a home about a week ago, and it will start another in January. Eventually, the group hopes to build even more homes than one per semester.

"It changes every time," Louis said of the many homes he and his students have built, though he cannot choose a favorite. "It's like asking me to name my favorite child."