A “windcatcher” is a centuries-old Persian technology featuring a tower that takes advantage of natural ventilation by capturing and cooling air. Hank Louis, founder of DesignBuildBLUFF, the University of Utah/University of Colorado, Denver design-build studio, recognized the merits of this simple solution for a recently completed Navajo family home. The house features a tower made of compressed earth bricks with four openings around the top. As the wind blows through the slits, wet blankets (moistened by a drip line) chill the air that then circulates around the home. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) helped the students engineer the tower, which works in concert with a ceiling fan to cool the space. A combination of grants, donations, portions of participating students' tuition, and support from the Utah Navajo Trust Fund financed the modest house. Students chose simple, locally available materials like rammed earth, cement board, salvaged rusted steel, and drywall for the construction. “It was the first time we'd ever used rigid insulation in the middle of the rammed-earth wall,” says Louis of the experimental 24-inch-thick walls. “It was difficult because we had to carefully build up each side simultaneously.” Many materials—such as the aluminum ceiling panels—were donated, and students got creative with other fixtures. The front entrance, for example, is a pivoting door on a ball bearing that the students devised from car parts. “We're trying to teach these kids common-sense building strategies, says Louis. “Sustainability folds in nicely with the curriculum of students learning about this culture and having compassion for people without housing.”
DESIGNERS: DesignBuildBLUFF/University of Colorado, Denver
CONTEXT: On a Navajo reservation in the arid southwestern desert, a design-build studio teaches students about passive design strategies.
STRUCTURAL: Studio NYL*
CONTRACTOR: Big-D construction*
CLIENT: Maxine and Maurice Begay
*Individual or company donated fully or in part their materials and/or services.