A Charrette in the Desert

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November 30, 2022

The Journey In

“The surrounding landscape offers a unique combination of natural beauty and natural challenges,” begins Seven Generations A+E (7GAE) Senior Project Manager David Martin.

From across the country, the carefully curated design team converged to begin work on revitalizing the Many Farms High School campus, venturing deep into the heart of the Navajo Nation for a charrette in the desert. After flying into Albuquerque, New Mexico, it was a four-hour drive on desert highways to Chinle, Arizona, the nearest town with hotels for overnight stays.

The on-site Bodwé team was joined in person by members of Nelson Engineering and WLA Studio, and virtually by a handful of other partner firms, including Arc Environmental and Bodwé sister company Steelhead Engineering. Everyone was eager to begin the charrette* and discussion of project priorities and site plan ideas.

*Design Charrette: an intensive planning session where project stakeholders meet to work toward a shared vision. Less a presentation of a proposed solution than a discussion of project needs and options, the goal of a charrette is to bring together all appropriate project stakeholders to build consensus and form a unified plan.

The Best Laid Plans

Given the large project team and remote project location, designers had spent some time before the charrette brainstorming thought-starter options for the campus site plan. Tasked with adding a variety of new capabilities and amenities to the school, while also decreasing the footprint, it took creativity to begin sketching things out.

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“We arrived at the charrette with a few concepts we were pretty excited about, then quickly realized none of them were going to work,” design lead Steve VandenBussche explained with a laugh. It was an early turning point at the start of a complex project. A design charrette that could have stalled out instead took on a new energy through collaboration and discussion among engaged stakeholders from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Many Farms School District, and the on-site and virtual project team.

VandenBussche opened his laptop and began to sketch out new ideas in real-time. In comparing the list of desired additions to the school alongside a map of the overall site with which to work, something had to give as there just wasn’t enough space to fit the necessary additions into the proposed footprint. From that came the idea to relocate the school’s athletic fields. Given that they were already scheduled to undergo significant renovation as part of the project, the decision to move them several hundred yards out was met with broad approval from the BIA and Many Farms community.

“We arrived at the charrette with a few concepts we were pretty excited about, then quickly realized none of them were going to work,” - Steve VandenBussche

The decision necessitated re-routing of a current road running along the exterior of campus. WBK civil engineers mapped out a new path for the roadway, routing it around the new location for the football field. This road was also already due for a re-design as part of the project, as the school campus was set to undergo a dramatic downsizing so, fortunately, it did not result in a significant addition to scope.

Under One Roof

The campus was originally constructed in 1968 as Diné College, a Navajo Community College, the first established by Native Americans for Native Americans. Like most college campuses, it consisted of a variety of standalone facilities, including a cafeteria nearly a half-mile from the main school building. This spread-out, separated concept provided a variety of challenges for Many Farms school officials.

Getting everything “under one roof” was integral, and now the team had made room to do so.  Senior Project Manager David Martin explains, “A compact, covered campus was paramount to the project for a variety of reasons, including reduced impact from weather, more efficient maintenance operations, and safety for students and staff.”

Unfortunately, the ability for a school to “lock down” quickly and efficiently has become increasingly vital, and a campus with so much necessary outdoor travel to and from different buildings throughout the day made heightened school security difficult. Additionally, the sandy terrain and penchant for extreme rain falls also made for a muddy campus as students trekked from building to building.  

Weather challenges are a focus for both the Water Resources team from WBK Engineering as well as the mechanical engineers from Steelhead. Monsoon-like conditions cause frequent flooding in the area, so the stormwater management team is tasked with designing a flood mitigation plan to move rainwater and decrease instances of standing water. Additionally, the desert sand combined with strong winds demands a unique solution for the school HVAC system as it must keep sand and debris out of the intakes and ducts.

"A compact, covered campus was paramount to the project for a variety of reasons, including reduced impact from weather, more efficient maintenance operations, and safety for students and staff.”  — David Martin, 7GAE

Next on the charrette agenda was the student dorms, set to house 100+ students. Previous assessment work done by 7GAE determined that a new structure was needed. “The old dorms were reminiscent of Army-style barracks, outdated and a bit institutional,” explained VandenBussche. “It’s an area the team is excited to re-imagine for students.” Consistent with the goal of a single, integrated complex, the new dorms will be connected to the main school building, with a covered roof extending the entirely of the pathway from school to dorms to shield from inclement conditions.  

New Beginnings

Another big change to student movement is the entrance to the school itself. Currently north-facing, the entrance is being reoriented to face the east. In Navajo culture, as well as many other Indigenous traditions, the east represents the beginning of a new day, a sense of rebirth, as the sun rises in eastern skies every morning. “It’s central to our mission as a tribally-owned company to incorporate these important cultural elements into our designs,” explains VandenBussche. “We learn by listening, and this charrette wouldn’t have come together like it did without that.”

While only in the early stages, the updated campus design – with a new gym, cafeteria, student dorms, and off-site staff housing to be designed by the Blue Star Integrative Studio team – represents new opportunity for Many Farms High School as well as the Many Farms community. Thanks to the new compact campus approach, the Navajo Nation will be able to use the remaining land, including the former recreation building, gymnasium, and auditorium, to benefit the broader community.

The goal of a design charrette is to bring stakeholders together, listening to and sharing with each other to build consensus for common vision. We are excited to report that together we are on a good path.  

Contact us

If you are interested in beginning a new project, you are a potential teaming partner, or you just want to chat about great architecture and engineering, please drop us a note.

Bodwé Professional Services

415 E. Prairie Ronde St.
Dowagiac, Michigan 49047

Seven Generations Architecture + Engineering

600 East Michigan Avenue
Suite B
Kalamazoo, MI 49007

3463 Magic Drive,
Suite T15
San Antonio, TX 78229

The Steelhead Engineering Company

259 E. Michigan Ave.,
Suite 407
Kalamazoo, MI 49007

WBK Engineering

116 W. Main St.
Suite 201
St. Charles, IL 60174

68 E. Michigan Ave.
Battle Creek, MI 49017

Blue Star Integrative Studio

320 S. Boston Avenue
Ste. 1710
Tulsa, OK 74103

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