There’s no quick way to get to Porcupine. It’s out in the middle of nowhere. But Rob Pyatt has been driving back and forth between there and Boulder just about every month for five years now.
It takes around six hours, depending on whether you head straight up through Cheyenne or arrow northeast on I-76. Either way, you end up on the same final stretch — through the desolate Sand Hills of Nebraska past Angora, through Alliance and into Whiteclay, where they make a lot of money selling groceries and booze to the Lakota. Then over the border into South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation through Wounded Knee, a place where U.S. troops infamously massacred Native American men, women, and children in 1890 — and where the tribespeople armed themselves and occupied the town for 71 days in 1973, making the community the epicenter of a years-long running gunfight between the American Indian Movement and the FBI.
“I like the drive, actually,” Pyatt says during his long trek home one afternoon. “There’s so much more to the landscape out here than people think. I love the smell of the prairie.”
Pyatt is the founding director of, and a designer for, Pyatt Studio, a ten-person design and planning team, tackles social-action projects. The one in Porcupine, the 34-acre Thunder Valley Regenerative Plan, is an audacious attempt to create safe, healthy, affordable, zero-energy housing in a self-sustaining, mixed-use community – a plan for living initiated by its residents. For once, change is being propelled by Native Americans rather than imposed from the outside.
The plan is receiving national attention. It’s one of sixty entrants in the third exhibition of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s series devoted to humanitarian architecture, By the People: Designing a Better America, which runs through February 26 in New York City. Closer to the horizon, it’s also one of 36 finalists in the South by Southwest Eco’s Place by Design competition/conference, which will be held in Austin October 10 through October 12.
“We are honored to be in that kind of company,” Pyatt says. “This could be a national model to alleviate poverty and create sustainable communities.”
Pine Ridge sits on what many would call wasteland. It’s in what used to be known as the Great American Desert, part of the Great Sioux Reservation granted by the government in 1868. As twentieth-century quarter-Cherokee humorist Will Rogers quipped, “They had a treaty that said, ‘You shall have this land as long as grass grows and water flows,’ and they settled the whole thing by putting them on land where the grass didn’t grow and the water didn’t flow.”
Today, about 30,000 people live there, scattered across 3,500 square miles. Problems are rife. Forty-nine percent live below the poverty level. There are no banks, no job-generating businesses, industries or investment. The health-care facilities and schools are inadequate. Unemployment is high, and so are the alcoholism and infant-mortality rates. The life expectancy is 48 for men, 52 for women – among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
Pyatt is quick to point out that that he’s just a member of one team involved in the project, and that the impetus came from the tribe itself; this is not some case of the Noble White Guy Saving the Poor Indians From Themselves. After government-imposed solutions that have morphed down the decades from extermination to assimilation to exploitation to interference to neglect, the Regenerative Plan is a bold act of optimism by one of the most disadvantaged and hopelessly situated of any population on the continent.
“I’ve learned more from the indigenous community I’m working with than I did in architecture school,” Pyatt says. “It’s a two-way learning process, and I’m rewarded. It affects my practice.”
Pyatt got his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Denver. “I had a natural inclination from the start to do something with social purpose, I guess, and that’s why I love working in housing," he says. "I like to work with families, and I prefer the user-centric approach.”
The project has been in development for a decade. It was pushed by the Thunder Valley CDC, which itself grew out of informal programs to reintroduce local youth to Lakota spiritual practices and culture. Youth opportunity programs followed, but the group could see it wasn’t enough.
“When the youth went home, they often were still dealing with issues such as overcrowded homes, lack of education opportunities, access to healthy foods, spaces to hang out and be kids, and economic opportunity for their families,” Thunder Valley’s website states. “We recognized that it would take systemic change to bring an ecosystem of opportunity for the youth we were working with.”
The CDC, led by executive director Nick Tilsen, went into the communities to find out what people wanted and needed to create a viable, safe, sustainable community. This input, and a HUD Sustainable Communities Grant, anchored the research and planning stages. Pyatt was called in, as were green architecture firm BNIM and KLJ Engineers, Studio NYL Structural Engineers and Biohabitats.
Working in close collaboration with Thunder Valley, the design team finished the first master plan in the spring of 2012.
“Most people — most modern people — are in cultures that are not tied to the landscape,” Pyatt says. “They don’t have that connectivity. Here is a people that’s lived in the same location for 5,000 years. It’s a connection that most folks don’t appreciate or understand. Philosophically, for the Lakota, the stewardship of the land is primary. It affects every aspect of the build. Sustainability is the key. They had to analyze the site and consider the balance of water supply, stormwater, wastewater and energy.”
A look at artist renderings of the project shows homes as well as commercial and community buildings that are integrated into the landscape – unlike the typical cookie-cutter, functionalist public housing churned out over the past few decades.
“These homes are being built thinking 100 years ahead,” Pyatt says. “Pine Ridge is remote; it’s very rural, it’s very challenging. It drives all your costs up. They had to think about the performative aspects — the cost of heating and cooling, natural ventilation and natural lighting. A key factor is affordability, to encourage home ownership.”
The plan includes individual and community housing, some food-growing capacity on the acreage, community and educational space, and retail and commercial space. Business incubators, social enterprise and educational initiatives will be implemented, encouraging homegrown businesses that will plant some seeds of economic self-determination.
“They’re creating a small town,” Pyatt says. “Self-sustaining, resilient, self-directing. It’s a repeatable, systemic solution that can be implemented anywhere in Indian country, or adapted for use elsewhere.”
In June 2015, a USDA grant helped to lower the lot prices for families who wanted in. In May, bidding opened on the construction of 21 single-family homes, the centerpiece of the project. Thunder Valley is happening.
“Housing is so central and important to human health and well-being. You have a responsibility to society," says Pyatt. "In a sense, no matter what you’re working on, you’re working in the public interest. If you don’t have access to affordable housing...I think that we all have the right to that, so there is a certain kind of activist or social agenda behind this work. It’s a huge problem, and one that most architects in Boulder are unable to address. We do mostly affordable housing, but regardless of the budget, the goals are the same. We all deserve a healthy home, regardless of the zip code.”
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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.