Valley Families: Between Fog and Flood



Crownpoint, NM | Diana Gruberg, Associate ASLA and Chunlan Zeng, Student ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisor: Laurie Olin, FASLA; Tony Atkin; Abdallah Tabet; Gavin Riggall | University of Pennsylvania


Our design of an infill settlement for Crownpoint, NM on the Navajo Nation provides housing options for growing families within a dynamic landscape, while embracing the cultural traditions that have sustained the Navajo on this land for centuries. The design links the realm of family with the domain of community through clustered housing units, a cyclical planting scheme, and a necklace of catch basins that mitigate flash floods and provide much-needed public space.



Located in northwestern New Mexico within the “checkerboard” area of the Navajo Nation, Crownpoint is a community of 2,630 people that is largely young, with 39.7% under the age of 18, compared with 24% in the US as a whole. While the community contains a number of assets, including the Navajo Technical University and Crownpoint Chapter House, it also faces fragmentation and infrastructural issues. The town was built in the flood plain, along an arroyo that remains dry for most of the year but experiences extreme flash flooding during the late summer and early fall. A series of top-down land allocation decisions by the US government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and private mining interests created a checkerboard pattern of ownership that has led to highly fragmented urban development. Our urban design scheme aims to aggregate the development around the main arroyo while positioning new buildings safely out of the flood plain. The design is inserted within the existing urban fabric with the goal of enriching the public realm for existing and proposed dwellings alike.


In September 2013, a flash flood hit the Crownpoint community, damaging many University buildings, engulfing cars, and impacting the quality life of students and families. Our flood mitigation strategy collects and slows water within the 338-acre drainage area of the university. A diffuse strategy employs five detention basins along the arroyo, capable of holding 2.6 million gallons of water collectively. The flow velocity is reduced as the water passes through an outflow pipe in each dam, from a peak flow rate of 183 ft3/sec to a manageable 28 ft3/sec. The basins are designed to address the 25-year, 24-hour storm, with an overflow spillway in place for the 100-year storm that diverts water to an uninhabited area to the west. The basins are constructed of soil cement, a cheap construction material that combines local soil with Portland cement and water. The basins are designed to emerge from the existing landscape, as stepped terraces negotiate the grade change between the holding area and adjacent plantings.


The Navajo have historically been subject to oppressive policies by the US government and have struggled to maintain their traditions in the face of the imposition of American culture. Traditionally, a matrilineal system of lineage ties the nuclear family to the extended family and the larger clan. These ties create both bonds of kinship and a network of support. The family Hogan, a traditional round or multi-sided structure with an earthen floor, plays an important social and spiritual role in Navajo culture. In urban settlements like Crownpoint, many families live in government subsidized HUD housing: small, standardized units that limit multi-generational accommodation and lack appropriate ceremonial space. Like other parts of the Navajo Nation, Crownpoint also faces a “brain drain” as bright young families increasingly move off the reservation in search of work. Our housing scheme offers options for three family-types: multi-generational families, single-generational families, and students. Housing units are clustered around a shared central courtyard inspired by the traditional Hogan. This common space includes a sunken plaza for gatherings and seasonal flood control, a planting scheme that filters grey water from the houses, and a set of vertical hydroponic gardens where families can grow plants for use in ceremonies and traditional crafts, or for sale. The buildings are arrayed under a tiered roof structure outfitted with biochar for grey water filtration. Shading structures oriented to the southwest are clad with a material designed to capture fog from prevailing northeasterly winds, harvesting potable water at certain times of the year and tempering the afternoon sun year-round. Multi-generation clusters contain core family houses with extended families aggregated around them. Attached to the clusters, family businesses allow residents to earn a livelihood and connect with the community at large. Single-generation housing areas are designed for young couples and scholars who work at the university. Student housing bridges the university and residential areas, providing living options near the classrooms but out of the flood plain. The housing clusters are designed in a circular grid, allowing units to expand as families grow.


When the Navajo first came to the Crownpoint area they called it T'iis ts'ooz nideeshgiizh, meaning “narrow trees in the canyon,” for the greasewood and cottonwood trees that grew here. Our planting scheme aims to restore the benefits of living in a seasonally flooded arroyo, envisioning a cycle between families, the community, and the earth. Locally collected seed is sprouted within vertical hydroponic gardens nestled within the family housing clusters. These saplings are then transferred to nursery pots along the drainage ways of the settlement and in a centrally located hoop house near the elementary school. After four to six months, the saplings are used in community plantings, employed as material for crafts, and raised for sale to the greater population of the Navajo Nation. Three plant communities are grown with distinct goals in mind: the restoration of degraded hillsides and drainage ways, the creation of orchards as a source of fresh produce, and the filtration of grey water that is generated within the housing clusters.

The restoration areas are planted first with a row of cottonwood trees, a fast-growing resilient species that provides wind protection for subsequent, more delicate plantings. Early successional juniper saplings are planted in the spring, into soil pits that have been enriched with organic materials. In the fall, in the wake of seasonal rains, the area is direct-seeded with pinyon pine trees and four-wing saltbush. Stream banks and valley floors are planted with drought and flood tolerant native species including sage, willow, alkali sacaton and greasewood. As time passes, a juniper-pinyon woodland emerges along the hillsides with a riparian community at the base of the canyon.

Orchards are located adjacent to the arroyo and behind the dams, where the filtered flow of water allows for a wider range of plants, including more delicate species. A multi-story orchard structure includes a peach, plum and walnut canopy, a shrub layer of serviceberry and evening primrose, and a ground cover of wolfberry and currant.

Around the housing clusters, hardy species are planted for shade and grey-water filtration. Species include mesquite and palo blanco trees and a resilient ground cover of rubber rabbit brush, four-wing saltbush, privet and snowberry.

Pilot Study: Fog Catchers

As a material case study, we explored a detail design that harvests potable water from fog. Fog collection is optimized in high altitude areas where a shift in diurnal temperature from the cold of the night to the warmth of the day causes condensation of atmospheric vapor. Our design takes advantage of such site conditions to address local water issues. The Navajo Nation faces both water-scarcity - related to arid conditions and water rights battles - and water pollution - from years of uranium and coal mining. Our test site includes a shelter constructed of local willow poles and an array of fog catchers, acting as a laboratory for on-going water quality testing. A polypropelene mesh, which mimics the structure of a spider web, is affixed perpendicular to moisture-heavy prevailing winds, directing condensed fog into a cistern below. The method has been employed in other parts of the world, including MIT research sites in Chile’s Atacama desert, and holds promise for the Navajo Nation and the arid Southwest.

"Very compelling. The student is trying to get into the same cultural territory of the 70s, thinking carefully about orientation and communal living."

- 2015 Awards Jury