Sail River Longhouse Apartments : Bringing Makah Families Home

October 2014 News

Neah Bay, a rugged place located on the northwestern-most tip of the Olympic Peninsula surrounded by lush forests and the pounding Pacific, is the home of the Makah Indian Tribe. The tribe’s name for themselves translates to “people who live by the rocks and the seagulls,” though the name Makah was given by neighboring tribes and means “generous with food.”

The recently opened Sail River Longhouse Apartments, designed by Environmental Works, embodies this feeling of generosity and welcoming in both spirit and place. Upon entering the protected courtyard, residents are met with quietude and calm, setting the stage for healing. This project, the first supportive housing project for any west coast tribe, fulfills the Makah commitment to housing first – then treatment, recuperation and reunification.

The Need

The Makah Tribe wants to bring its people home. Tribal leaders see significant barriers to some Tribal members feeling whole, including such serious issues as homelessness, addiction and mental illness. They feel that permanent, supportive housing is the best way to create the layers of impact that will help Tribal members in need begin the process of healing, and to create a healthy environment for reuniting families. Tribal leaders determined that this housing must be co-located with recovery support and family services. Wellness support, integrative medicine, basic education, employment and court services are also within easy reach.

The Project

Even though the challenge of pulling together a funding package for this type of project seemed daunting, the Tribe knew it would provide the best possible solution for Tribal members. Combining federal and state grants with Tribal funds, the Tribe was able to secure the financial backing to tackle the $5.3M project. Fortunate timing meant the Tribe was eligible for special grants which allowed them to preserve previously acquired federal block grant funds for ongoing operations of the facility once built.

Responding to Tribal needs, Environmental Works designed 21 units of affordable housing (20 resident units and one unit for a manager) with a commons building where services are offered to support the tribal members who call the Sail River Longhouse home. The two-story, U-shaped residential building and one-story longhouse-style commons building enclose a landscaped courtyard. The twenty resident units face onto the courtyard; 12 one-bedroom, 4 two-bedroom and 4 three-bedroom units house a total of 80 people maximum at any one time. The larger units are specifically designated for families in the process of reunifying.

The commons building provides indoor space for classes and community gatherings, lounge space for informal talks and sessions, spaces for staff, including case managers and counselors, a community kitchen and a common laundry. The building form and exposed wood structure evoke the traditional Coastal Salish longhouse; the circular fireplace at the center creates a warm, inviting space for residents, staff, and visitors.

Culturally significant materials and iconography are incorporated throughout. The primary design motif of the courtyard is the circle, an important symbol in Makah tribal culture. The courtyard, wrapped with a covered walkway framed in cedar posts and beams, incorporates boulders, driftwood and native plants, honoring the Makah connection to their ancestral home. Together, building and landscape combine to create positive spaces that are essential for healing. Through multiple community design charrettes, Environmental Works gained the insight needed to create this restorative space.

The Impact

Upon opening, 20 formerly homeless Makah families now have permanent shelter; most had previously been living in temporary situations on and off the reservation. The difference between temporary and permanent is critical to healing – there is no timeline by which residents must move out of the program. The primary goals of the project – housing first, then treatment – create lasting change for tribal members so that they may return to family and tribal life as contributing members of the community. Residents are enjoying the quiet and peaceful environment created at the Sail River Longhouse Apartments. While 20 families are on their road to recovery, more await – the tribe receives an abundance of applications from those still seeking shelter and recovery. People see the Sail River Longhouse Apartments as a place they want to be, a place they want to truly live.

For more information on the Makah Tribe, please visit