Members of the Gila River Indian community see traditional house designs come to life

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Thousands of years ago, members of the Gila River tribe built dwellings with thick adobe walls to protect them from the heat. But in the 1960s, the federal government began providing standardized housing on reservations that was not designed for the desert climate. The Gila River Indian community wants future housing to be not only culturally appropriate, but also more energy efficient.

Last year, Dalla CostaDalla Costa is also an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. met with several Gila River residents for the first time to discuss what their homes should look like. They produced about half a dozen models, ranging from around 1,600 to 2,600 square feet.

On Tuesday, Dalla Costa brought together community members as well as about 30 ASU graduate students in master’s programs in architecture, business administration, construction, and Native American studies. In a classroom at the Huhugam Heritage Center, residents broke into groups, took these initial designs, and talked more specifically about what they wanted. The students came up with different options for walls, roofs and windows, which were then visualized in a three-dimensional computer program.

Skyler Anselmo, a 23-year-old community member, said many times more than one family lives in a house.

“We grew up sharing space,” he said. “The houses we have now are piled up and there is no synergy.

“The foundation of our culture is to share and thrive together,” said Anselmo, who works at Sacaton in the AmeriCorps program.

Dalla Costa told bands they could push the envelope, and Anselmo’s band did. They designed a house with a large, central, open, round family room, with other rooms sticking out like rays.

Community members were almost unanimous in their desire to have an outdoor cooking area, as well as a shaded patio and play area. They were also interested in sustainable traditional elements, such as a rainwater harvester.

And everyone wants a garden.

“It’s part of our history, when we were on our own,” Anselmo said. “It goes back to the roots of our culture when we grew our own food.”

Sky Dawn Reed, who earned a master’s degree in science and technology policy at ASU and now works in the Gila River Indian Community Planning Department, said the design should be flexible.

“We should think about making houses solar-powered,” she said. “It may not be doable now, but maybe we can do it later. It may even be far, but we have to be forward thinking.

Belinda Ayze, a graduate student in the American Indian Studies program at ASU, sat down with an elderly resident and helped facilitate her discussion about the design.

“I was asking her how she lived her life and how she cooked and if she wanted wheelchair ramps and bars in the shower,” she said.

“I asked why she wanted an outdoor cooking area, and she said, ‘Food tastes better with fire.’”

Ayze, a Navajo, said older residents she spoke to wanted traditional east-facing adobe walls and doors.

“I think it’s a good idea to make the houses the way they want and the way they’ve always dreamed of living with their family,” she said.

The objective is to train the inhabitants of Gila River to build the houses. Last spring, ASU Master of Architecture student Selina Martinez designed a traditional adobe shade structure, or “vatho,” that was built by a team of builders from Gila River, led by the master builder Aaron Sabori.

Dalla Costa hopes to come up with around six final designs, one or two of which will be selected to be part of the construction drawings. Then a prototype would be built over the next year.

“The design is yours, and the construction should be yours because I know there’s a long history of building your own homes,” she told the community.

Top photo: Members of the Gila River Indian Community review several of the Gila River Indian Community housing designs in a collaboration between community members and graduate students from schools of architecture, ASU Commerce, Engineering and Native American Studies at the Huhugam Heritage Center on Tuesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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