At most architecture schools, students spend all their time in studio studying theory and putting their artistic visions on paper, without ever setting foot on a construction site to see how their designs translate to the real world.

Designing a building and then constructing it tests a student's knowledge and capabilities in a unique way. Such design/build skills are cultivated at only a few architecture schools around the U.S. The University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning'sDesignBuildBLUFF studio, founded by professor Hank Lewis in 2000, is one of the most recent programs to follow in the footsteps of Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio at Auburn University.

"They are intended to learn how to put into real-life terms what they would normally only see on paper or on a computer," says Karena Rodgers, director of development for DesignBuildBLUFF. "By having them actually construct what they design, they learn far more than they ever learn in a classroom setting about the actual hands-on workings of architecture."

Partnering with the Navajo Housing Authority and the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, DesignBuildBLUFF identifies members of the Navajo Nation reservation near Bluff, Utah, who are in need of housing. Each spring semester, students build one house to meet the specific needs of the selected family. Because the reservation is off the electric grid, they use as many passive-solar building materials and construction methods as possible. Many materials are fabricated in the program's own workshop.

The design/build program requires first-year graduate students to live together near the Navajo Reservation for the duration of the project. Usually the program enrolls as many as 12 students; this spring semester there are 17. Unfortunately, the house that serves as a student dormitory in Bluff has sleeping space for just eight. Renting housing for the extra students is a costly proposition.

Because the university expects enrollment to continue its steady increase, the program faces a housing shortage. So this spring's DesignBuildBLUFF project is to create additional student housing and work space.

Named the Ship-Shop for its resemblance to a spaceship, the residence is built around and within three used steel shipping containers. The one-story building incorporates sleeping quarters for eight, a bathroom, a kitchenette, and a large workshop for fabrication of the studio's most commonly used materials.

"The containers were chosen because they're huge, and after they're used for transport, they're dumped and take up landfill space," Rodgers says. "There's no reason they can't be used; all they need is insulation."

A traditional nautilus-shaped bathhouse also is being built, enclosing two showers, two washrooms, a sauna, and a saltwater tub. Students had to redesign it seven times, according to Rodgers, because they weren't being realistic about the site—a valuable learning experience. "They would have given those designs over to a builder and washed their hands of it, like most architects, and would never know about the problems in getting it built," Rodgers adds.

Although this year's project does not benefit a family on the reservation, ultimately it will allow DesignBuildBLUFF to grow and continue its humanitarian work. One of the studio's goals for 2009 is to open the program to all graduate students, rather than just first-year students, which could increase participation and fuel additional projects.