Pictured are participants in the NASHI program including Chris O'Hara, the structural engineer; Lenny Lone Hill and Lyle Wilsen, OLC faculty; Doug Noyes, director of the Constructions Technology Program at OLC (behind); and Dr. Jennifer Benning from the South Dakota School of Mines.

Tribal College and Colorado University Partner to Provide Reservation Housing


The University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) and Oglala Lakota College (OLC) in Kyle, South Dakota have teamed up for a two-tiered architectural enterprise. Not only will they provide hands-on learning opportunities to their respective students, they also expect to provide energy-efficient homes to tribal members of the Pine Ridge Reservation community.

The Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative (NASHI), a “unique project-based approach to architectural education,” as CU-Boulder instructor and research associate Rob Pyatt called it, begins in January. Each spring, a group of CU-Boulder undergraduate environmental design students will take part in the program.

The students will experience an integrated curriculum of three classes. These include an Advanced Materials Workshop, which will teach about sustainable and affordable building materials. There is also a course called Critical Issues in Native North America, taught by indigenous studies scholar Dr. Doreen Martinez, Mescalero Apache. The third course is an architecture design studio that will include culturally relevant case studies.

“NASHI distinctly centers indigenous understandings and values. Our motto is to design for people and places and the structure of NASHI ensures that indigenous beliefs and practices are vitally incorporated into the homes’ build process,” Martinez said.

While CU-Boulder students work on designing homes and absorbing Native culture, the tribal college students will learn everything they can about sustainable construction. Then, over the summer of 2012, the two groups of students will come together to put into practice what they have been studying—how to build culturally appropriate and sustainable homes.

The build class takes place on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, underscoring the importance of the Native cultural element in the curriculum. The first four homes will be built on the OLC campus; they will be used to house faculty and conduct research.

“The college’s structure is unique,” said Doug Noyes, the director of the Constructions Technology Program at OLC. “There is not one central campus but rather 10 classroom buildings in 10 communities. Having a place to live in the geographical center of the reservation will help the instructors. The main reason, though, is to limit the variables as to usage, occupancy and location so that the best data can be obtained.”

Noyes expects that the construction and data collection will take approximately four years. After that, the information will be used to build homes in the communities on the reservation.

Pyatt said the research aspect of the project will consist of comparing and contrasting those four houses to determine what materials and methods of construction work best. The homes will also be monitored over time for “energy performance, indoor air quality and durability over time to help inform future housing options within the community at large.” Pyatt would like to then build one or two homes every summer for families in the community.

NASHI Doreen Martinez Rob Pyatt

Neither Pyatt or Noyes is Native, but they have the support of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), a Native nonprofit based on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“Lakota tribal members on Pine Ridge not only face an overall severe lack of housing, but a majority of the homes in existence are substandard, plagued by black mold, are energy inefficient resulting in high heating/cooling costs in our harsh temperature extremes, and are not designed to withstand the high number of occupants crowded under the same roof as it is common for extended families to share living space,” said Nick Tilsen, TVCDC executive director, in a letter of support for the project.

Pyatt feels that his expertise in sustainable materials and methods of design could support housing efforts in Indian country, so he brought his proposal to OLC. There, as Noyes put it, NASHI was developed by “a bunch of folks sitting around talking.”

“There is a real and pressing need for sustainable and affordable housing in Indian country and in thinking about how to create a long-term design build program I thought partnerships between universities and tribal colleges could prove invaluable and rewarding for all,” Pyatt said. Altogether the collaboration, he feels, is important from an educational standpoint because the “discovery, integration and application of knowledge within the local community will help prepare students to lead through action.”

Funding for Rob Pyatt’s research appointment and student travel costs are being provided by the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver, and long-term funding is currently being pursued. Also helping with this project will be the South Dakota School of Mines and the Math and Science Department at Oglala Lakota College, which will provide monitoring of some of the scientific data. The OLC Business Department will be helping with the project budget.

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kathrynscott's picture
Submitted by kathrynscott on
This is wonderful! Look into "Life Village", a product by Envision Solar. Although they have been focusing lately on their Solar Trees, I was told they would be picking up further development of the Life Villages in 2012. You can see a video presentation of the concept on YouTube. They are modular, inexpensive, self sustaining buildings that can adopt to many usages. I think they would be perfect for native people living in remote areas. They are quick to install and an entire village can be built in a short period of time. I have already mentioned the idea of using this product for natives to someone at Envision Solar, but you may be able to get it going sooner that I could. I am only a single person with a dream.