OLC campus in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Photo courtesy Rob Pyatt

The students will build the first four homes on this site, located on the OLC campus in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, home to an estimated 40,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, is one of the poorest areas in the country. The unemployment rate is well above 80 percent, and an astonishing 97 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. Many of the houses on the reservation are considered substandard and lack basic water and sewage systems, electricity, and central heating. Plus, there’s an overall housing shortage, with more than 4,000 new dwellings needed to address widespread homelessness.

On January, 16 undergraduate students from the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning will travel to Pine Ridge to launch the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative, an interdisciplinary service-learning project to address the reservation’s housing woes. Led by instructor and researcher Rob Pyatt, the students will hold charrettes with tribal members and students from the reservation’s Oglala Lakota College and begin to design sustainable and affordable houses. “The actual design will come out of the process of working with community members,” Pyatt says. “The houses need to be responsive to the specific climate and landscape at Pine Ridge, but also the cultural landscape.”

Back in Boulder, the CU students will take courses on Native American topics, community-based design, and sustainable construction. Next summer, they will return to Pine Ridge to build four prototypes on the OLC campus, each with a different method of environmentally friendly construction. Faculty members will live in the model homes. In future summers, students will build dwellings in various communities on the 3,500-square-mile reservation.

Pyatt says he created NASHI in part because of demand from students, who in recent years have become increasingly interested in community service design-build projects. The course is open to junior students in CU’s Environmental Design Program. Pyatt says he had to turn away about 20 students from other disciplines—including engineering, law, and environmental science—who wanted to enroll.

Pyatt admits that it will take more than NASHI to meet Pine Ridge’s housing needs. “If we worked there for 10 years,” he says, “we wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface. But we’ve made a long-term commitment to the community. I see us working there for many years. The students are so passionate and committed to this kind of work that we’ll be able to do some tremendous things.”