A lot has been said the past year about engagement in design and especially that ‘design for’ should become ‘design with’. That is certainly a trend that will go on in 2014 and beyond. But discussing it is a lot easier than actually putting it into practice. Most examples of ‘design with people’ seem to take place far from our rich western world. The Nashi project shows it can be done closer to home, with neighbours within the country.

The Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative (Nashi) works with the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Among this people 80 percent has no job and 90 percent live under the poverty line. In a daring collaboration between University of Colorado Boulder’s Environmental Design Program, Oglala Lakota College’s Construction Program, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corp–faculty, architecture students work together with volunteers, people from the Oglala Sioux community and several program coordinators on better housing for Native Americans.

The main goal is to build sustainable, energy efficient and affordable houses that suit the people of the community and region. In addition the project is turned into a case study for students in construction and design at the collaborating universities. Thus the Nashi project yields lots of information and insights for future housing projects for native Americans like the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

This, to me, is an excellent example not only of collaboration and ‘design with the user’ but also of culturally inclusive and sustainable design. The project also shows how enriching education can become when architecture students leave their studios and actually construct a building with their own hands. And even more importantly, when they get in touch with the very people they are designing for … or with.

The video shows the impact this project had on all the people involved, from inhabitants to students, from contractors to local officials. A  book  available online offers a more detailed account of the entire project, including the basic system that had to be designed to get it realized, the collaboration, the actual construction of the houses with lots of helping hands and the experiences of students with this kind of hands-on education.


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