Engineering Students trade Laptops for Hammers in Interstate Service Learning

Published: December 19, 2012 | Read Time: 3 minutes

Red dirt stretches for miles in Bluff, Utah, broken only by monstrous sandstone bluffs and a meandering river. And while the silence is standard, the region’s windblown solitude is broken now by the golden sound of power tools and laughter as a group of college students from Southern Utah University and the University of Colorado Denver construct a family’s new home amongst the sagebrush in the heart of the Navajo Nation.

The home construction project began in May of this year when students from the two universities combined forces with the non-profit organization DesignBuildBLUFF (DBB) to build an energy sufficient home for a deserving family on the Navajo reservation.

With a budget of just $40,000, which was donated by organizations through DBB, students worked with the chosen family to create an energy sufficient home well suited for the region’s climate and a drastic improvement in living conditions for the recipient family.

“These kinds of projects literally take the families out of poverty and for the first time gives them a home that has running water and working electricity, a home they can depend on,” said SUU integrated engineering student Mark Trevort.

Though this is not the first DBB home completed in Bluff, it is the first time SUU’s students have been involved, and it is no doubt helpful to the lucky family who now call the student-driven project home, it is no less life-changing for the 22 students who traded in their pencils and drafting boards for hammers and tool belts to build the house.

Trevort and Chris Hoffman, both seniors studying integrated engineering at SUU, joined the project as the only engineering students on the build team, as well as the only undergraduate students.

“During all of my schooling I’ve only used pencils and keyboards to create, but to turn our design into an actual home was incredible,” said Chris Hoffman, SUU integrated engineering student. “Since we were the only engineering students on the project we were able to teach the architecture students about solar design and they, in turn, taught us how to make design beautiful.”

Now complete, the home is ready for the Navajo family of six just in time for winter’s deep freeze on southern Utah.

DesignBuildBLUFF is the brainchild of Hank Louis, a Utah philanthropist and professor of architecture at the University of Utah who, in 2002, was compelled to action after seeing the daily housing struggles for those who lived on the Navajo reservation.

Louis then gathered graduate-level architecture students from the University of Utah and University of Colorado Denver to build one home for a deserving family each spring and fall. SUU was invited to contribute engineering students for the first time with DBB in spring 2012.

His hope of creating a transformative experience for the both the families in need of assistance as well as the students in service was quickly realized, and DesignBuildBLUFF now functions as an ongoing non-profit organization that accomplishes its mission through college-based service learning.

In a promotional video on the DBB website, Louis explains the importance of the change that occurs in the student volunteers who join DBB’s ranks every year:

“With the invention of the computer, many students have lost the ability to work with their hands. When they leave the construction site they have learned to build walls, install windows, pour concrete and lay flooring.” 

Proof that his perspective is forever changed for the better, Hoffman reflects,  “I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. Working with the Navajo people over these past nine months has changed what I want to do with my degree and I hope I can continue to help these great people.”

In addition to SUU’s two integrated engineering students, the only qualifying undergrads involved in the summer through fall semester project, SUU professor John Murray has served as the resident renewable energy expert for DBB since 2004.

“DesignBuildBLUFF gives the students more than just amazing work experience; it empowers everyone involved. Every student that has been involved with these projects goes on to do amazing things with their degrees,” said Murray.

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