Nestled in the valley beneath northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo range, amidst expansive high desert terrain scattered with juniper and sage brush, lies the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States: Taos Pueblo. This ancient village comprises a multi-storied residential complex with ceremonial kivas and multiple layers of interconnected individual homes. According to the Taos Pueblo website, the Taos people have preserved and revitalized the pueblo for more than a millenium using traditional materials and methods, including replastering with thick layers of the structure’s primary building component, adobe.
“Architecture isn’t just siding and wood, it can also be adobe,” Masani Salazar, a fourth-year architecture student, explained. “People forget that this building method is pretty much the most sustainable thing you can do for architecture.” Adobe, a combination of burnt-orange earth mixed with water and straw, is both energy efficient in its insulating properties and incredibly resilient to climate and time. “I’m really interested in looking at ancient architecture and how it still stands. In Taos Pueblo, the structures still hold and the adobe stays put.”
Salazar has lived in Colorado for most of her life. But as a tribally affiliated member of the Taos Pueblo people, she has deep connections to the community. “It’s a part of my culture and I practice their traditions. Even though I’m from Colorado, it’s home.”
Despite the village’s long-standing history and living culture, available and affordable housing has become a critical need for the people living in the vicinity of the Pueblo. The expansion of Taos, a nearby municipality, and the consequential impacts from regional tourism have put pressure on the community, forcing many to leave. Young people especially are struggling to find available housing in the community as it hasn’t seen new housing development in over 30 years.
In summer 2023, Salazar hoped to address this need.
Through an internship with Ferguson Pyatt Architects, a Boulder-based architectural firm, Salazar took a vital role in the firm’s long-term community development project with Taos Pueblo. The firm’s principals and owners, Janna Ferguson, Rob Pyatt (both ENVD alums) and Heather Kahn-Pyatt, see the firm as “the embodiment of the philosophy that ENVD teaches in terms of integrative design and interdisciplinary approaches to projects.”
“We’re both interested in architecture that is contextual,” Ferguson added. “The foundation of the work is place-based and informed by local context.”
In this case, the place is Taos Pueblo. Ferguson Pyatt first began work with the Taos Pueblo Housing Authority in 2017 when they were hired to develop a master plan for a 50-acre housing development project known as the “New House” neighborhood. The plans include four emergency housing areas and a 50-unit housing complex.
“Masani joined when the project had already been underway for a couple of years,” Pyatt explained. “But for us, it was really important to include Masani in all aspects of the project. This is her community. Her family is there. She is emotionally and intimately knowledgeable of the culture.”
Under Ferguson Pyatt’s mentorship, Salazar designed and constructed a three-bedroom floorplan prototype model at an 8-inch scale, mirroring the Taos Pueblo’s traditional style of architecture. “Native American typologies aren't really being talked about in architectural history at ENVD,” Masani acknowledged. “So, this experience was a way for me to understand more about what else the field has to offer other than European architecture.”
She hopes that by designing housing that is familiar and comfortable, built out of adobe or similar material and following traditional architectural styles, more people will choose to stay in the community.
Site work and construction has already begun and final design plans for the rest of the houses are expected to be finalized by the end of the year. Despite the project’s successes, however, it didn’t come without challenges. “There’s a historic imbalance of power,” Salazar commented. “Initially, it’s hard for my community to really trust outside agencies.” Masani explained that Ferguson Pyatt’s work, however, focuses on building long-term relationships and incorporating community input every step of the way.
“We have a big emphasis on community engagement and community-led design. It can be difficult, and it takes a lot of time, but I think the projects are better because of it,” Ferguson expressed. To the firm, this engagement is highly variable from project to project and looks different depending on the needs of the community: listening sessions with elders, design workshops for students or feedback sessions with invested community members.
According to Shawhin Roudbari, ENVD associate professor, this kind of engagement practice isn’t as common in the field of architecture as one might think. He noted that the Ferguson Pyatt approach is “profound in our discipline. In the research I’ve done, I haven’t seen people really succeed in managing a sustainable practice and doing it deeply. These deep relationships they have with partners has allowed them to do something that I haven’t seen other practices do.”
“They are helping our community modernize, but in a way that’s for the people while keeping it as traditional as possible,” Salazar agreed.
Salazar has found some unexpected fame as a result of her work. “My family has gotten more notoriety. The people at the community events tell my family that they’re excited that I’m pursuing this kind of work that’s helping them,” she said. When she presented her work to the Tribal Council and other community members, she nearly received a standing ovation. The governor of Taos Pueblo personally acknowledged her and her contributions and addressed the importance of supporting young professionals and tribal members like Salazar who can work in their community to support their families and relatives.
“It was inspiring especially for some of the young people that were there. One of our goals is trying to connect tribal youth in the communities that we are working with to higher education and the field of architecture, design and engineering,” Pyatt noted.
Salazar is currently studying abroad in Barcelona. For her, it’s an opportunity to get in touch with the other side of her heritage which has roots in Spain. “There’s this gap that I’m trying to fill, to learn a little bit more about my culture. I wanted to go to Spain to learn more about what the architecture is like but also seeing how the people are here. I’m really interested in learning cultural things about indigenous people, and I’ve been learning about the indigenous people here and what they value.”
She won’t be away from Ferguson Pyatt for too long, however. When she returns, she plans to assist the firm on a new school project in Colorado, redesign her parents’ house that burnt down in the Marshall fire, and, of course, continue her work at Taos Pueblo.
“To have her involved in the first new housing that is going to be built at Taos Pueblo in over 30 years is such a cool story.” Ferguson beamed. "It's historic.”