Collaboration between students, California Indian nation culminates in development of new houses

An engineering class on campus designed houses which are being built for the Native American tribe called the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.
Ryan Shelby/Courtesy
An engineering class on campus designed houses which are being built for the Native American tribe called the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.

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A collaboration between a group of UC Berkeley engineering students and a Northern California Indian tribe culminated Friday in the grand opening of three new environmentally friendly homes designed by students for the tribe.

The project, which began five years ago as part of the design and analysis course for freshmen, Engineering 10, has resulted in the construction of eco-friendly and culturally sensitive housing for the Pinoleville Pomo Nation tribe. The tribe is located in Mendocino County, about 120 miles northwest of Berkeley.

The collaboration began when a chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society approached UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Alice Agogino with the tribe’s need for better housing.

The project aimed to combine cutting-edge design principles with the cultural beliefs of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, which has about 300 members scattered throughout Northern California.

“They came in originally wanting something that reflected cultural values and something that was sustainable and in harmony with nature,” Agogino, who taught the freshman design course, said. “They were tired of getting box-like, trailer-like, structures with no insulation.”

David Edmunds, the former environmental director for the PPN, said these desires translated into particular features in the homes, like a big kitchen connected to sitting areas where a large family could come over and have gatherings. The homes also contain rounded corners because of a belief among the tribal members that bad spirits might hide in corners, according to Edmunds.

The end product was something culturally sensitive to the PPN’s needs in Northern California, said PPN Vice Chair Angela James.

“We try to respect Mother Nature in the green building process, from the hay bale building to the rainwater catch system,” James said. “It’s getting back to the way we lived a long time ago.”

The housing’s circular shape also resembles what the tribe calls a “round house,” which carries significant cultural meaning, James said.

Edmunds said that one of the key aspects of the project was that tribal members were able to work on the homes themselves.

“The whole collaboration was a unique process because we actually got to put in our input,” James said. “Our tribal members were part of that from our youth to our elders — they actually got to be part of the planning process.”

Ryan Shelby, a co-leader for the project and a former campus graduate student, went with other students and Agogino to the reservation to help build the homes and get to know the people who would be living in them. He said the process involved combining Berkeley engineering knowledge with tribal engineering knowledge.

“We spent a lot of time listening to each other’s frameworks,” Shelby said. “I worked to link the needs of the tribe, which are more social, with the technical of the College of Engineering.”

Contact Ally Rondoni at [email protected].

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