Build Design Utah celebrates 20 years in Bluff

by David Boyle
News Director
A unique program that has brought architecture students to San Juan County to learn hands-on building celebrated held a 20-year celebration in March.
Operating for over 20 years, the Design Build Utah program at Bluff has giving graduate architect students at the University of Utah a unique hands-on learning experience that has included a benefit of building residential homes on the Navajo Nation.
The celebration event was titled Don-Don Den-Den and brought local residents, students, professionals and alumni of the program to Bluff for 13 days to learn, collaborate and create.
Alumni and event organizer Adrienne Caesar explained in an interview that the program originally started in 2000 in Park City as a way for University of Utah architecture students to learn construction skills. The program moved to Bluff in 2004
“The focus shifted to housing projects on the Navajo Nation. This is a very unique program there are about 11 of its kind across the United States. The closest one in Washington. It’s really exciting to provide this kind of education in such a rural location.”
Caesar explained the program brought her to Bluff for a four-month stint that turned into three years in the community.
“My degree is in architecture and I’d been craving a hands-on experience to increase my building knowledge. There are few programs, that I mentioned, this one felt very special because of the way they use natural materials and the population and communities that they serve.”
The unique project has included over 405 students on 36 projects, including 23 residential projects, as well as art installations.
The program has changed over time, and for the past 10 years the program’s co-directors Atsushi and Hiroko Yamamoto have offered the program to students not only at the University of Utah but also from Japan as part of an exchange program.
Atsushi is an alumni of the Build Design Utah Bluff program as Hiroko Yamamoto explained in an interview.
As students, she and her husband participated in similar hands-on architecture programs in Japan, before eventually coming to direct the program in Bluff.
Yamamoto shared that typically the program completes about one home each semester on the Northern Navajo Nation and is built with sweat equity from the homeowners, in the form of construction labor or meals provided to students, however the eventual occupants can best contribute. The clients are also taught how to provide maintenance on the building to keep it usable once students leave.
Building the homes offers a unique challenge as building materials are not always easily accessible and the homes are built to be self-containing. The aesthetics of the buildings are also inspired by the local landscapes and culture as well.
Students not only apply their architectural knowledge through hands-on experience but also learn about the Navajo culture and local landscapes.
Designs are kept simple to help beginning students and homeowner volunteers be able to fully participate, with many of the homesite locations lacking water and electricity which can prove a challenge for construction projects. In connection an emphasis is placed on sustainable materials that reflect the surrounding beauty.
Yamamoto says the project is a win-win situation for the students and clients.
“They can provide us an educational opportunity and then we can provide architectural service.”
The program has resulted in plenty of alumni who have gone on to professional success but Yamamoto says they share sometimes they miss getting their hands dirty. Still Yamamoto says that the work of connecting with a community to understand needs increases program graduates’ social understanding of how to work with clients and community when it comes to architecture design.
The program has left an impact on dozens of residents who now own a home, and their influence remains in the form of feedback on projects and also showing their homes to new architecture students, so that they can grasp the vision. Some clients even remain involved in construction projects providing expertise and guidance to students.
The program has also received community support throughout the years which helped inspire the idea to create the 20 year celebration named Don-Don Den-Den. Caesar explained the names origin.
“It comes from a Japanese onomatopoeia and captures the intention of our project to have gradual engagement and create unity.
Don-Don means the sound of beating drums and represents the gradual involvement of people increasing over time.
Den-Den means the spiral of a snails shell and signifies the gradual growth of the project as participants work together to expand and create a comfortable environment.”
The celebration included workshops, lectures and events with familiar Bluff faces like the Yamamotos and Joe Pachak, but also presentations from Japanese Architect Kinya Maruyama, and plaster Naoki Kusumi, and other Japanese landscapers, farmers, lumberjacks and flute makers.
When asked about the influence of Japanese culture on the Design Build Utah Bluff program Yamamoto mentioned that on the small island of Japan many homes are built compact. With challenges of acquiring building materials, and maintenance services the homes of Design Build Utah are also compact and simplified so residents can provide maintenance on their own homes.
While the network of alumni and homeowners has grown and expanded over 20 years, Yamamoto says they hope the future growth will include the local community, with an emphasis of sharing their work and opportunities with local Diné youth.
“We want to create this fun opportunity together. Not only architecture program students, but kids, elders, everyone is welcome to see what’s happening. Everyone can get inspiration from the work.”
More program information can be found at

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