“You don’t want to wander too far from the land,” says Carmen Dee. “You want to be able to come home and live off the soil that your mother and father once lived on.”
Dee, a 51-year-old mother of two grown daughters and a member of Navajo Nation, knows this better than most. Her attachment to the land runs deep. As a young adult, she left home to attend college in the big city. But like her mother, she came back as soon as her studies were done, now 20 years ago. Her father, a traditional healer who only spoke Navajo, made sure she spoke the language and understood the traditions.
Last year, Dee was able to build her dream house on the land where she plans to spend the rest of her days. Dubbed Four Peaks House after the four sacred mountains of Navajo culture, the house was designed and constructed with the collaboration of the State of Utah Navajo Revitalization Fund and the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, and with the help of architecture graduate students at the University of Utah and their instructors. She hopes her descendants will live in her new home for centuries to come.
Four Peaks House is meant to be a model for future dwellings built on Navajo land. It is designed to be duplicated at low cost, as part of an effort to combat the affordable housing crisis currently affecting the area.
Navajos have lived in the Four Corners area of Colorado for centuries before colonizers arrived: first the Spanish, and then those who would ultimately call themselves Americans, the ones who stole their livestock, burned their fields and homes, and dislocated the survivors. Over 90 million acres of land have been taken from Native Americans since the late 1800s. Today, in an attempt to reverse some of those damages, the Trust Land Consolidation Fund is buying back land from willing sellers and returning ownership to tribal members.
DesignBuildBLUFF is an architecture program at the University of Utah that every year builds one home for a Navajo family as part of this land buyback program for the Navajo Nation. The architects Atsushi and Hiroko Yamamoto coordinate the program.
Four Peaks House was built in the area of White Mesa, a tiny town with a population of 173. There are no hardware stores, grocery stores, or even any paved roads. Designed last summer, the plans for Four Peaks House had to reflect the home’s remoteness and lack of services. There’s nothing else within an hour-and-a-half drive except a few other houses.
Four Peaks House currently doesn’t have running water — more than 40 per cent of Navajo homes don’t — but funding for utilities has been approved. “I’m not really going to push or be a nuisance because I know some people have been waiting 5 up to 20 years to get their utilities, so I can be patient,” Dee laughs.
To inspire others in the area with the confidence to build the same home for themselves, Dee’s collaborators at the university employed the “sweat equity model” popularized by Habitat for Humanity, where a home’s future residents contribute their own labour to its construction to reduce its cost.
“We can only build one house a year,” explains Atsushi Yamamoto. “If they’re able to copy our models, our impact can be bigger.”
To achieve that kind of easy reproducibility, Yamamoto and his team wanted the home to be simple enough to replicate by a motivated amateur and a dozen or so friends in under 60 days. In practice, that meant no relying on heavy machinery and no transporting lots of concrete to the site. Materials had to be lightweight, affordable, and accessible; for example, corrugated metal and cedar siding were chosen for their durability, low maintenance, and energy conservation.
“We used some concrete, but the little we could transport to the site had to be mixed by hand,” says Yamamoto. “And without heavy machines, the maximum length of the material was 18 feet [5.5 m], so two people could carry it.”
There were other constraints to improve the regional viability of the construction. The house had to be able to endure the long and extremely hot Utah summers, as well as its short, freezing winters. Most importantly, it had to last for up to two hundred years — the minimum lifespan of any authentic architecture, according to the Yamamotos.
The design of the Four Peaks House also brings together both modern and traditional elements. For example, Dee insisted that the door face east, so in the morning she can say a prayer and make an offering while the sunlight pours in.
The house also includes a hogan, a small room detached from the main house, made of packed mud placed over wood. Navajos once used these structures as domiciles, but they now mainly serve for traditional ceremonies.
Dee hopes her daughters will return to Navajo Nation and create similar living situations. “I encourage my kids to finish their schooling,” she says. “But when they finish, there’s plenty of land next to me.”
Montréal-based freelance writer and video journalist Sacha Obas is passionate about tackling social issues. He has written articles for the Montreal Times, the Montreal Community Contact, and the Concordian.