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Sustainable Design and Affordable Housing on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Photograph of five 2-story houses, each with a with covered corner porch, arranged in a circle.
Photograph of a group of students and instructors posing in front of a one-story building on the campus of the Oglala Lakota College.
Photograph of two men, one of whom is holding a model house, in a classroom.
Photograph of an unenclosed wall of a straw bale building, with South Dakota’s rolling hills in the background.
Photograph of four people talking on the porch of the partially-completed straw bale house.
Photograph of the back and side façades of a one-story house with rooftop solar panels.
Photograph of three 2-story houses under construction.


Home >Case Studies >Sustainable Design and Affordable Housing on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation


Sustainable Design and Affordable Housing on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation


The Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative (NASHI) was launched in 2010 at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder) to offer students from public and tribal schools a unique service-learning opportunity that is focused on providing design and building services on tribal lands. Thanks to CU Boulder’s longstanding connection to Gerald One Feather, a celebrated figure in the Native American education movement, NASHI expanded its work to include two South Dakota schools: the Oglala Lakota College and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Together, the three institutions partnered to undertake projects on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation located in South Dakota. Since the 2011–12 academic year, NASHI has graduated more than 80 students who have deployed 4 environmentally sustainable house designs and contributed to the construction of 40 houses for Pine Ridge families.

Designing for People and Place at Pine Ridge

Rob Pyatt, senior instructor in the Environmental Design program at CU Boulder’s College of Architecture and Planning, developed a curriculum that combined design classes, social science, and hands-on work with what he calls the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental, and economic impact. Pyatt partnered with Dr. Doreen Martinez, a professor of American Indian Studies in CU Boulder’s Department of Ethnic Studies, to draft a combined Architecture/Ethnic Studies curriculum. Colleagues introduced Pyatt and Dr. Martinez to a distinguished CU Boulder alumnus and longtime friend of the institution, Gerald One Feather. One Feather served as the youngest elected tribal president of the Oglala Lakota Nation, helped pen the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and founded the Oglala Lakota College (OLC) on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. OLC was an instrumental partner and brought the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) into NASHI as well. Together, the three schools devised the NASHI curriculum as a service-learning program. At CU Boulder, this program consisted of a spring semester of classes, community design workshops, and studio work followed by a summer build project and capped by a reflective fall semester of independent study. NASHI launched in 2010, and in the following year, the first cohort of 16 NASHI students at CU Boulder made their initial trip to the reservation, when they began collaborating with residents to create environmentally sustainable, affordable, and culturally appropriate housing. In its first academic year, NASHI completed its first 19 homes at Pine Ridge to demonstrate workable components of a housing solution.

Energy Efficiency and Affordability

Working in concert with community members, the CU Boulder students produced four house designs, each using a different sustainable construction technique: straw bale, structural insulated panel (SIP), compressed earth block, and advanced wood framing. Community members eliminated the compressed earth block design because of construction practicalities. NASHI erected its first house, a 1,000-square-foot, 2-bedroom building with straw bale walls, at a 34-acre sustainable community called the Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Development. NASHI students from CU Boulder and SDSMT worked beside students in the OLC construction trades program to complete the first home over the course of a year. The solar panels and insulating straw bale walls of the house result in net zero energy use, meaning that in any given year, the home’s average metered energy consumption will be zero watts or less, saving money that residents can spend on other necessities. As of 2021, the Thunder Valley Regenerative Community is using the straw bale house as a community daycare center. The building is also the subject of SDSMT graduate research to periodically monitor its energy use and indoor air quality.

In 2012, Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Housing (OSLH) constructed 18 homes through a HUD Rural Innovation Funds grant. OSLH awarded a contract to Pyatt Studio, which used NASHI to assist with architectural services and workforce training. NASHI students from CU Boulder worked with local community members to design a modestly sized two-bedroom house that used SIPs, foam-core boards visually similar to drywall. The houses were built by independent Lakota contractors hired by OSLH. NASHI students from all three schools were on site to familiarize the workers with SIP and net zero energy design principles, including energy auditing. OSLH built two SIP houses in each of the nine communities in Pine Ridge. Because of the insulating properties of the panels, the tightly sealed building envelope, and the air-recovery ventilation systems in the houses, the residents benefit from the same net zero energy benefits promised by NASHI’s first construction. OSLH formed the Lakota Property Management Company to manage the new units, which created permanent reservation jobs and improved the agency’s competitiveness for future low-income housing tax credits.

NASHI returned to the Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Development in 2018 to develop houses using advanced wood frame techniques. Advanced wood frame construction, also called optimum value engineering, reduces lumber and adds insulation in a house’s structural framing, which also reduces construction costs and improves the building’s energy efficiency. The first 7 houses were completed that year, and the final 14 are slated for completion in 2021. NASHI students also have developed a fifth sustainable housing design, a 700-square-foot hemp lime house that incorporates industrial hemp, an agricultural product traditionally grown on Pine Ridge, to create a carbon-neutral building material. A prototype of the hemp lime house will be deployed as an elder housing unit in 2021. Between building projects, NASHI students and instructors communicate with Pine Ridge and visit the reservation often, monitor their designs, participate in community outreach, engage in workforce development activities, and conduct design research.

Transitioning to Independent Status

Pyatt left CU Boulder in 2015 to practice architecture full time at his firm, Pyatt Studio, where he has maintained NASHI and its close relationship with the university, OLC, and SDSMT. In 2018, Pyatt, along with Janna Ferguson and Walt Pourier of Pyatt Studio and former OLC instructor Lenny Lone Hill (currently of OSLH), launched the nonprofit Building Cooperative, of which NASHI is now a part. While continuing NASHI’s work with housing, Building Cooperative engages middle and high school students, in addition to university students, in community development projects on tribal lands, such as community centers and schools. With this expanded scope, Building Cooperative maintains NASHI’s ethic of sustainable, affordable, and culturally informed building.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.