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New Paradigms in Tribal Housing

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New Paradigms in Tribal Housing

Exterior image of the Nageezi House, a single family detached home built using aerated flyash concrete block, and its attached shade structure.
House in Nageezi, New Mexico, built using Navajo FlexCrete, was designed by the Arizona State University Stardust Center. Image courtesy of Daniel Glenn
At a May 2013 event held at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative (SNCC), an initiative of Enterprise Community Partners, presented its 2013 Case Studies Project. The 2013 Case Studies Project, part of a multiyear effort to develop and disseminate best practices for building sustainable housing in Native American communities, was funded by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research. The 17 case studies featured in the project represent an emerging trend of sustainable building practices that promise to transform tribal housing projects while preserving their communities’ cultural heritage. This article is first of two in a series highlighting these best practices.

SNCC chose to highlight a range of inspiring projects that could be replicated in other communities. Many featured teams took a holistic approach to housing development, incorporating meaningful community engagement during the design process; establishing partnerships that later proved critical for success; and resolving complex issues such as site planning and tribal employment. All of these projects highlight the innovative ways that tribal housing providers overcome challenges, including financing, infrastructure capacity, loss of cultural traditions, and economic development.

Construction of straw-bale homes on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.
Red Feather Development Group and Northern Cheyenne tribal members developed a design/build model for climate appropriate, load-bearing straw-bale homes in the Northern Plains. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenberg
Good design is the cornerstone of these housing projects, and in each case, community input helped guide the design. Many project teams opened a dialogue with the community to discuss specific family, cultural, and heritage needs. The most successful projects involved partnerships among housing authorities, architects, engineers, community members, tribal leaders, funding agencies, and contractors. This type of collaborative effort, known as “integrated design,” ensures that all stakeholders have input into the project’s long-term goals and vision. Following an integrated design approach means that each project is uniquely realized and built specifically for its community and place. For example, the design of the Kumuhau Subdivision in Hawaii reflects the plantation style of older area homes; similarly, buildings in the Place of Hidden Waters near Tacoma, Washington are an updated version of the traditional Coastal Salish longhouse characteristic of the Pacific Northwest, and the Guadalupe and Nageezi demonstration homes adopt the adobe-style construction and massing typical of traditional desert homes in the Southwest. Many of these projects are also beautiful, serving as objects of community pride.

Native American communities have long sustained strong senses of place, identity, and community, even through major social and geographic upheavals. Thoughtful site planning, as practiced in the Place of Hidden Waters, Teekalet Village, and Penobscot Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Homes, can help protect and celebrate the natural habitats that are central to Native American tribes’ lifeways and heritage. Place-based approaches to sustainable housing take into consideration factors such as infrastructure, density, habitat protection, and affordability. For example, Owe’neh Bupingeh is based on a long-term master plan that promotes compact development in the historic Pueblo core. The Navajo Housing Authority’s Sustainable Community Planning Manual establishes standards for maintaining affordability in sustainably planned developments throughout the Navajo Nation. Access to healthy food is an important aspect of site planning, and the Place of Hidden Waters is reaping the rewards of onsite community gardens. Rain gardens and rainwater harvesting help conserve water, a precious resource in desert climates.

Image of compressed earth block homes surrounded by snowy ground on the Crow Indian Reservation.
As part of the Good Earth Lodges project, the Apsaalooke Nation Housing Authority assembled a tribal workforce to design and build compressed earth block homes that will withstand Montana’s extreme climate. Image courtesy of Adventure Pictures
Building sustainable and healthy communities requires innovative thinking, and many of the project teams demonstrated creative approaches to developing their partnerships, technologies, research, and financing. The Apsaalooke (Crow) Tribe partnered with the University of Colorado at Boulder to develop an earth block house built by a tribal workforce. The Pinoleville Pomo Nation collaborated with many partners to develop a prototype home and tribally based building codes. The Nageezi and Guadalupe demonstration homes, which Arizona State University’s Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family helped design and build, are desert-appropriate homes constructed with Navajo Flexcrete, a Navajo tribal enterprise. Straw bale homes at Northern Cheyenne in Montana are part of a larger Red Feather Development Group initiative to build super-insulated housing using all-volunteer crews. The Owe’neh Bupingeh Rehabilitation Project incorporates new technologies to preserve and stabilize ancient adobe homes, with an education and research component informed by cultural leaders and homeowners.

Many projects required developers to creatively leverage block grant funding with multiple sources. The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo was the first tribal housing project in Texas to take advantage of low-income housing tax credits, which required considerable partnership building and tenacity. As a result, much of the project’s infrastructure funding came from regional, county, and state agencies. The Penobscot designed custom model lending documents to help young Penobscot families move back to tribal lands, allowing them to participate once again in their cultural traditions.