Joseph Kunkel is Fast-Tracking Quality Housing for Indigenous People

How the founder of MASS’s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab builds back better—against the clock.

Joseph Kunkel
Courtesy Mass Design Group

Even by standards of an industry built on rapid innovation, Joseph Kunkel, director of MASS Design Group‘s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab, has lately kept a punishing schedule developing creative, low-cost housing solutions. In an effort to improve the quality and condition of Native housing, he’s leading teams working to complete projects in New Mexico and Northern California in less than two months: up to ten 400- to 600-square-foot units for elders in the 225-member Big Valley Rancheria community in Northern California; and four 1,800-square-foot, 4-bedroom houses for the Santa Clara Pueblo Housing Authority in New Mexico. The compressed timeline—from vetting prefab manufacturers in August to delivering move-in ready residences by November 30—is necessary to help those communities access funds under the CARES Act, Congress’s emergency Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security assistance program.

The new housing is needed urgently to stave off further spread of COVID-19 in Native communities, where the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to it, are also critical to social stability, and 32 percent of households report they’ve been unable to get healthcare for serious problems as the pandemic persists. More than half, 55 percent, are also reporting serious financial trouble, according to a recent poll conducted jointly by NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. State housing authorities must use the money by year’s end or lose it.

201008 Plant Prefab Site Visit
Courtesy Mass Design Group

But rather than fast-track the bare minimum, which is common in a crisis, Kunkel, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, is working to steer emergency assistance to more permanent solutions to prove a point.

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Typically, FEMA responds with temporary homes that become permanent, he says, and this has led to further injustice, because the end users are forced to renovate the poorly constructed homes. Conversely, Kunkel insists federally funded emergency structures can be built better up front. “We’re stuck in this mentality of constant low-balling. Instead, we can push the boundaries of what those federal funds can accomplish,” he says.

Created By Dji Camera
An arial view of the Santa Clara, New Mexico, building site. Courtesy Mass Design Group

That means racing the clock to specify quality materials under unusual pressure. In New Mexico, for example, his team is following the 2020 Enterprise Green Communities checklist for building, which ensures features including materials with no VOCs, site positioning that enables passive solar benefits, and continuous exterior wall insulation. The California project calls for well-sealed building envelopes to drive down energy costs. “If this is successful, we are proving that there are better options when responding to a crisis,” Kunkel says.

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