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Student-Built Earth Block Home Brings Natural Cooling to Navajo Reservation

5/9/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: natural cooling, Utah, Navajo, cooling tower

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailWhen 22 University of Colorado students designed and built a home for Maxine Begay and her son on the Navajo reservation in southeastern Utah, they were well aware that keeping the home cool in the harsh desert climate would be one of their biggest challenges. They rose to it, incorporating an evaporative cooling tower known as a Windcatcher—common in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan—into the 1,500 square-foot earth block home’s center. “Cooling homes in Bluff is one of our biggest challenges, and this is the first time a class has attempted to tackle the issue head on,” says Andrew Foster, operations director for DesignBuildBLUFF, a program designed to help graduate students realize architecture that nurtures the spirit and improves the lives of all who experience it.

The Begays’ cooling tower sends warm air down a chamber lined with damp pads, cooling the air through evaporation before it enters the home through two vents. A wood stove at the tower’s base, surrounded by compressed earth blocks, provides winter heat. Rammed earth walls protect against harsh winds and summer sun. (For more on the Windcatcher, check out the diagrams at the end of this post.)

Students are currently putting the finishing touches on the Begays’ Windcatcher and will test it this summer. I look forward to learning more about what they find out.

windcatcher exterior 

A central cooling tower known as a Windcatcher cools air through evaporation before it enters the rammed earth home. Photo by Andrew Pogue  

windcatcher night 

The entrance to Maxine Begay’s home faces east, the most sacred direction in the Navajo culture. Photo by Andrew Pogue 

 windcatcher detail 

The home is built from rammed earth blocks and insulated with recycled blue jean insulation. Photo by Andrew Pogue 

 windcatcher fireplace 

Located at the base of the cooling tower, the woodstove will keep the house warm during winter months. Photo by Andrew Pogue 

windcatcher kitchen 

Check out that great light fixture made using old jars and an old ladder. Photo by Andrew Pogue 

windcatcher diagrams 

In summer, the Windcatcher sends air down a chamber lined with damp pads to cool it. In winter, a woodstove warms the home. Illustration by Mark Olsen 

 windcatcher tower detail 

Illustration by Mark Olsen 



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