A Real-life Lesson in Design
What started as a six-week project for freshmen engineering students may create culturally sensitive and energy-efficient housing for a small California Indian tribe.
A roundhouse-style design conceived in last spring’s E10 Engineering Design and Analysis course has been embraced by members of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. The tribe plans to submit the UC Berkeley concept when it applies for federal funding to build up to 25 new homes in the Mendocino County community of Ukiah.
“There’s an acute need for housing here,” says David Edmunds, environmental director for the tribe, which has about 300 members scattered throughout Northern California. “Housing is considered a linchpin for a lot of things the tribe wants to accomplish.”
Sustainability is also important to tribal members, and the engineering students are developing plans to retrofit some existing homes in the town of Lakeport with solar hot water heaters, photovoltaic systems and other energy efficiency improvements.
The collaboration got its start earlier this year when Edmunds and tribal representative Linda Noel approached a Native American student group at UC Berkeley for help. Their request found its way to mechanical engineering professor Alice Agogino, who teaches an E10 module on human-centered and sustainable design. “I was looking for projects,” says Agogino, who concluded that this one had great potential.
The students, supervised by Agogino and graduate student instructor Ryan Shelby, eagerly accepted the challenge. On a Sunday in April, they made the 115-mile trip to Ukiah to meet with the Pinoleville Pomo group. During a daylong workshop with 20 tribe members, the Berkeley Engineering students asked about the community’s needs and solicited input on concepts.
That kind of exchange is precisely the idea behind human-centered design, Agogino says. Tribal members “know more about their needs than we do,” she notes. The students heard that the tribe’s current HUD-financed housing provides shelter and serves basic necessities but has little connection to Pomo traditions and culture.
Several tribal representatives later visited Berkeley to help evaluate the resulting student designs. The tribe felt this was an important part of the collaboration as well.
“This community let us in and spent a lot of time with us,” Agogino says. “I warned them, ‘This is a freshman and sophomore class.’ They were just blown away by what the students produced.”
The concept, still a balsa wood model, is the product of ongoing discussions between the students and tribal representatives. It features a rounded structure containing a large communal kitchen and living room to accommodate extended families and tribal gatherings. Five small attached units can be used for bedrooms and storage. The dwelling has a living roof and plenty of natural lighting.
“It resembles our traditional roundhouse,” says tribal vice chair Angela James, adding that she and others appreciate the students’ collaborative and green approach. The tribe wants to build centralized housing in hopes of unifying the Pinoleville Pomo and letting members take advantage of job training and other services. “It would strengthen our community, not only economically, but traditionally,” James says.
Seven UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students continue to work on the project, and this spring, a UC Berkeley architecture class will further refine the design. Sponsoring the overall effort is a student-run community outreach program called CARES (Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability).
“It’s a real-world project the students can actually own,” says Shelby, a third-year Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering and CARES’ cofounder. “This is going to directly impact the lives of people.” Along with supervising the students, Shelby is incorporating the project into his doctoral research on sustainability and alternative energy.
“It’s a really fulfilling thing to do,” says Che (Tommy) Liu, a 19-year-old sophomore involved in the effort. “You kind of feel like you’re helping people who need the help, deserve the help. I wanted to see it through.”