A University of Utah program will build homes in the Navajo Nation

Apr 1, 2022, 6:11 PM
navajo nation...
This April 23, 2020 photo shows an empty Interstate 163 in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, Utah, on the Navajo reservation. Photo credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.

SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning program will build homes in the Navajo Nation. The program aims to bring sustainable and affordable homes to the communities of San Juan County.

How the program works

DesignBuildUTAH is a graduate-level program at the university’s architecture and planning college “focused on immersing students in hands-on cross-cultural experiences,” according to the program’s website

There is a Bluff, Utah section of the program and a Salt Lake-focused section. DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff focuses on working in the Navajo Nation. The program’s website said that students get involved in hands-on designing and building opportunities. The program has run since 2004.

The upcoming project to build homes in the Navajo Nation comes with challenges. The university said that students will need to consider the fact that most Navajo Nation construction sites do not have running water or electricity. Students will build homes that keep the recipients’ needs and environment in mind.

“We focus on eco-friendly and affordable homes in a location with many challenges,” said Atsushi Yamamoto, instructor of the program.

Students in the program completed the “Horseshoe project” in December 2021; an expandable house with a greenhouse and a box that would allow homeowners to hook up a generator or solar panels. 

Yamamoto recalled the achievements of the “Horseshoe project” when discussing the challenging location students will be building in.

The university said that DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff focuses on sustainability and prioritizes respect “for the region’s unique social, cultural, and environmental needs.” 

Program students will visit the location before beginning the design phase. The design phase will be in the summer and the construction will be from September to November. The university said students will live in Bluff, Utah during the construction phase 

Who gets the new Navajo Nation homes?

Home recipients were chosen through recommendations from the Utah Navajo Trust funding, Navajo Revitalization Fund, and local chapter houses, according to the university.

In order for the recipients of the homes to connect to the students, the recipients took online classes over the past two years.

The university described the “Sweat Equity” concept that students utilize during building. Students will allow recipients to participate in the building process.

“We aim to provide learning opportunities not only for our architecture students but also the home recipients,” said Yamamoto. “The students completed the core parts of the construction, and since we worked with recipients together, they are confident that they will finish the rest of the work of their new home.”


In 2021, the Horseshoe project required 12 weeks of work on-site, which consisted of more than 5,000 hours. Most of the materials were purchased through funds donated by the Navajo Revitalization Fund. The remaining materials were donated by Big-D Construction, Mountain Fiber Insulation, and JRC Lighting.

Over the years, donors such as The Sorenson Legacy Foundation have assisted DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff in becoming one of the top programs in the country, focusing on sustainable housing with a sweat equity model.

“We are proud to support the work at DesignBuildUTAH@Bluff,” said Lisa Meiling, Executive Director of The Sorenson Legacy Foundation. “This program is a real example of the best in humanity, using our talents and resources to lift others. We search for projects that enable people to be self-sufficient and empowered. When recipients are on the sites participating in the construction process, we believe that these homes will be cared for and improved for a long time.”

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A University of Utah program will build homes in the Navajo Nation