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Building Home Teaches Navajo Designers More About Their Culture

By Leslie Linthicum
Of the Journal
    NAGEEZI— Kee and Mary Augustine's old house looked something like this: Long cracks in the kitchen floor, smoke stains from stove fires, a buckled roof in the bathroom, power cords snaking out of the one electric outlet, a collapsed ceiling covered with mold.
    It was a wreck by any standards. But on the Navajo reservation, where poverty reigns and waiting lists for federally subsidized housing stretch for decades, it was all too common.
    In April, a team of neighbors tore the Augustines' house apart and turned it into a pile of rubble.
    And last week, the couple got the keys to their new home— a 1,470-square-foot modern wonder designed and built by a team of Arizona State University students.
    The design team included four Navajo students who made sure the new house stayed true to Navajo culture.
    And thanks to donations of materials and labor, the new house won't cost the Augustines, a retired couple on a limited income, any cash.
    Mary Augustine, a 73-year-old retired Head Start teacher, walked around her new house Thursday, proudly showing off its two bedrooms, tiled bathroom and shiny modern stove.
    By the time their old house was torn down, she said, she and her husband, a 77-year-old retired carpenter with a disability, had been confined to its only livable room, eating and sleeping on either side of the woodstove.
    "It's unbelievable," she said. "All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you— never-ending thank-yous. Sometimes, you daydream, you think someday, maybe. My dream came true."
    The Nageezi project came to life thanks to the Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family at ASU and the university's College of Architecture and Environmental Design.
   
Inspiration
    Christopher Billey, a third-year architecture student and Stardust Center employee, contacted the Augustines when he was looking for a home renovation project fellow students could take part in. When he saw the condition of their home, which they had built themselves over the last four decades, he knew the project would have to shift to new construction.
    He, Navajo students Adrian Holiday, Tanya Yellowhair and Jason Croxton began to consider how they could make an inexpensive home that was energy efficient, quick to build and appropriate for an elderly Navajo couple who have lived a traditional life.
    Holiday said he looked for inspiration back to summers spent with his grandmother in a mud-plastered hogan near Monument Valley.
    "We were trying to seek an innovative design relating to Native American culture and specifically Diné culture," he said.
    Billey said the designers dissected a hogan in their minds and examined the purpose of each of the hogan's elements in Navajo life.
    The fruits of that exercise were evident last week as Navajo dignitaries, friends, neighbors and visitors from ASU toured the house.
   
Ghost of a hogan
    The door of the handsome stucco-coated home faces east as is Navajo custom. The floor space is designed to be navigated in a clockwise direction, moving from public to private spaces as one does in a traditional hogan.
    Instead of designing a traditional eight-sided hogan with modern building materials, the design team decided to build a more conventionally shaped home around a hogan-shaped courtyard.
    "It respects the hogan structure without being a hogan," Holiday said. "It's like a ghost of the hogan."
    Paying homage to the chahash'oh, a traditional summer shade structure built of cedar poles and covered with tree branches, the team set a long porch down the south side of the home and topped it with a portal built from two-by-fours salvaged from the Augustines' old home.
    The house was designed to honor the four elements that are central to Navajo culture: fire (a fireplace sits in the outdoor courtyard, the center of the house); water (water flows off the roof and collects in a cistern); earth (the construction involves local timbers and stone and FlexCrete blocks made of a byproduct of coal power generation); and air (a series of vents and windows pulls fresh air throughout the home).
    Billey and Holiday said the experience was especially gratifying because of what they learned about their traditions while making a contribution to their people.
    "You get to revisit your roots and gain understanding and also to respect your roots," Holiday said.
   
Latest features
    Volunteers from ASU, laborers provided by the Navajo Housing Authority and local tradesmen put the house up in under three months while the Augustines rented a house nearby.
    The house is designed with nifty features that make it 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventional home. It is heated by a radiant floor and high windows are fitted with motors that open them when the home's air temperature reaches 80 degrees.
    Mary Augustine is delighted she no longer has to haul wood and coal. And, she said, motioning to the spiffy new washing machine and dryer, "I don't have to take my laundry to Bloomfield."
    Chester Carl, director of the Navajo Housing Authority, toured the home and drew comparisons to the 8,000 houses built on the reservation over the years by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
    "They're cookie-cutter style," he said, having no relevance to the way Navajo people have lived. Carl liked the Augustine's home, especially its FlexCrete construction, its modest price tag (between $40,000 and $50,000), and said it is a direction the tribal housing authority wants to take.
    "We see a lot of possibilities," he said. "This may be the seed that makes that grow."