On the valley floor beneath the dramatic sandstone cliffs of Bluff, Utah, emerging builders have spent over two decades erecting experimental homes with new materials like FlexCrete blocks: a Navajo Nation product created from the coal ash leftovers from power plants.
They’ve built dozens of homes testing earthen plasters, recycled plastics, shipping containers, and pallets. Located at the edge of the Navajo Nation, they have also merged their investigations with traditional craft to build with owners on tribal land.
“Sweet Caroline” (2006) is round like a traditional hogan with an eastern entrance, but instead of earthen plasters, they used Flex-crete, a fly-ash by-product material produced in the Navajo Nation. “Benally” (2007) was constructed with “rejected road base material that matched perfectly the sand/clay/aggregate ratio necessary to make non-stabilized (no added concrete) compressed earth blocks”. Making the central hearth the focal point (as in a traditional Navajo home) the passive solar compressed earth block walls were built to point directly from the hearth toward the four sacred mountains (fundamental to the land). The roof shading acts as a traditional “shade house”.
“Rosie Joe” (2004) incorporated “a rammed-earth Trombe wall for temperature regulation; a south-facing wall glazed with salvaged and gang-mulled windows; weathered wood; the ceiling and roof structure made entirely from recycled pallets; exterior walls of straw sandwiched by clear acrylic; interior walls clad with discarded road signs.”
Resembling a ‘terra dome‘ structure, “Little Water” (2012) continued to perfect the passive cooling and heating techniques, with 5 natural systems for “Bluff’s scorching summers and frigid winters”. These include an insulated thermal berm wall, a straw bale wall, a solar oculus for natural ventilation and cooling, a ventilated second roof, and a rocket stove.
We toured the Design Build Bluff campus with lead architects/builders Atsushi and Hiroki Yamamoto, spent a night in the “Shipshape” container home, and visited with “sweat equity” owner/builders who talked about the desire to live under the protection of the four mountains surrounding Navajo land, but wanting to fuse modern with traditional in a home.