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Green Building News

A Green Guide for Native Americans

Government and tribal representatives release a guide to help revive sustainable building practices for tribal housing

Mesa Verde, in the southwest corner of what is now Colorado, was home to the Pueblo people for 700 years. The buildings are an excellent example of passive solar design and sustainable building practices. At Mesa Verde, a native people produced durable and comfortable housing with locally sourced materials — goals that a new green housing toolkit wants to encourage in new tribal housing.
Image Credit: Don Graham via Flickr

Representatives of tribal nations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have produced a guide designed to help tribal nations recreate the sustainable building practices that once were a hallmark of tribal housing.

The Tribal Green Building Toolkit, formally unveiled last week by the EPA, is the work of the Tribal Green Building Codes Workgroup, representing both the EPA and tribal nations. It’s designed to spur the development of green building codes among tribes, which by law are not covered by state or local building codes.

“There is a tremendous need for healthy, green, affordable tribal housing,” Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said in a prepared statement. “Almost 20% of tribal households spend more than 50% of their income on housing. This toolkit will help tribes develop affordable green building strategies that can dramatically cut utility costs.”

Native Americans were the first green architects and builders on the continent, the Toolkit’s introduction points out, basing their designs for housing on cultural values informed by an “intimate knowledge” of place, climate, resources, and technology.

“Traditionally, tribes built structures from local resources and without written codes,” the document continues. “These structures were safe, healthy, and energy and water efficient.”

Modern tribal housing, however, often isn’t as successful, in part because tribal nations are sovereign, and not subject to state or local building codes, and typically don’t have the resources to develop green building codes of their own.

“Despite tribes’ early and long history of sustainable building practices, modern tribal buildings often do not incorporate many green building practices,” the Toolkit’s introduction says. “Utilizing green building codes can be an opportunity to revitalize sustainable cultural practices by integrating traditional knowledge and values into tribal building codes. By implementing green building practices, tribes can help maintain the natural resources that have historically sustained them.”

The Toolkit is not a rule book

Unlike LEED for Homes, Passivhaus, the Living Building Challenge, the National Green Building Standard, and a variety of other sustainable building guidelines, the Toolkit is not a set of prescribed rules for performance, construction, or renovation. Instead, the bulk of it is an “assessment” designed to help tribal leaders develop priorities for housing and figure out whether new or updated codes are needed in their communities.

There are a series of checklists in six categories: land use, materials and resource conservation, health, energy efficiency, water management, and “resilience and adaptability.”

Questions can be used by tribes currently with or without building codes. By working through the list, tribal planners can develop a list of code changes (or adoptions) that will encourage affordable sustainable building.

In the end, tribal authorities can adopt an existing code, adapt an existing code, or create a new code of their own. The Toolkit also outlines steps for accomplishing those goals. The emphasis is on the development of building guidelines that reflect local conditions and goals.

Along those lines, the Toolkit also offers several case studies of tribes that have developed green building codes of their own, including the Pinoleville Pomo Nation in northern California; the Big Sandy Rancheria Band of Western Mono Indians in Fresno, California; and the Spokane Tribe in northwest Washington. Each had slightly different needs and objectives.

There are some 2.1 million tribal housing units in the U.S., according to the Toolkit, more than 8% of which are considered overcrowded. Nearly 3% of all tribal households lack plumbing facilities (five times the proportion of all U.S. households), with a similar share of tribal housing lacking complete kitchen facilities.

Tribal housing also is sometimes in short supply, as is the case at Fort Peck, Montana, where a foundation underwritten by Brad Pitt launched a building program last year. Housing is in such demand there that some families have been forced to sleep in shifts.


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