Building better homes in Indian Country

Tribes use green building to address housing shortages.

  • This strawbale home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, now completed, is the first prototype for a 100-unit sustainable housing development. Facing a shortage of about 4,000 homes, Pine Ridge is working on finding efficient, affordable housing solutions.

    Robert Pyatt
  • An earth-bermed demonstration home built by the Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority in North Slope Borough, Alaska.

    Cold Climate Housing Research Center © 2009
  • The Puyallup Tribe's Place of Hidden Waters, a LEED Platinum 22-unit affordable-housing project, was modeled after traditional Coast Salish longhouses.
  • A model of a straw-bale insulation and earthen clay wall home built by the Pinoleville Pomo Nation in Ukiah, California.

    Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability
  • The Ohkay Owingeh Tribe in New Mexico is rehabilitating a historic pueblo that has been occupied continuously for at least 700 years.

    Kate Russell Courtesy Atkin Olshin Schade Architects

There's no other house like it on the Oglala Sioux's 2 million-acre Pine Ridge Reservation: Its walls are insulated by 18-inch strawbales rather than plastic sheeting, and its radiant-floor heating is much cheaper than the typical propane or electric. A frost-protected shallow foundation inhibits mold and is more energy-efficient than the damp basements common here.

Surrounded by South Dakota's open prairie, the rectangular home with its red-metal roof is one of four prototypes the local nonprofit Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is building with South Dakota college students and the University of Colorado Boulder's Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative. Others will feature compressed-earth blocks, structural insulated panels made of plywood-faced foam, or standard wood framing.

Each is intended to help the planned 100-unit sustainable housing development meet all its energy needs on-site through rooftop solar panels, energy-storage batteries, and passive-solar design to take advantage of both sun and shade. The project won't erase the 4,000-unit housing crunch on the country's poorest reservation, but every bit counts in a place where dilapidated two-bedroom homes may shelter 15 or more people.

Thunder Valley is just one of many recent green-building efforts undertaken by tribes nationwide to attack housing shortages and offer alternatives to the standardized, often prefab "HUD homes"  – that is, those built by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – common on reservations but often ill-suited to local climate and culture.

"We're trying to build a net-zero affordable house," says Nick Tilsen, the nonprofit's executive director. "We're looking for these 34 acres to be almost like a laboratory for Indian Country, for Pine Ridge, and for the country when it comes to sustainable communities."

The project will employ locals – important on a reservation with 80 percent unemployment – and each house will cost about $130,000 to build, $45,000 less than a HUD home of similar size. Residents will benefit from reduced utility costs and open floor plans that reflect traditional values, including multigenerational living, while federal grants and financing geared toward low-income and Native buyers will support homeownership. Tilsen says: "We think that the built environment should reflect the movement of the people here."

The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation used a $1 million grant from HUD to help plan the community. Tilsen is now seeking $8 million in public and private funds, including a within-reach U.S. Department of Agriculture Water and Waste Disposal Loan, for streets, sewers and other infrastructure. Home construction could begin in three years.

The Oglala Sioux Housing Authority is also building 18 high-efficiency passive-solar homes, which should be ready by May. Their monthly climate-control costs should be around $100, a big savings over the average $300, says housing authority project manager Glen Barber. Another 27 are planned, with at least 100 the ultimate goal. Each should cost tens of thousands less than the typical Pine Ridge home.

Rob Pyatt, an architect for both projects and leader of the University of Colorado team, has also worked on sustainable building projects with tribes in Utah, Montana and Wyoming. The movement is still in its early stages, he says. But "the projects we're doing are repeatable. ... It's a matter of workforce development and teaching these skills to the next generation."

Other case studies:

North Slope Borough, Alaska
Inspired by the region's traditional sod igloos, in 2009 the Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority built an earth-bermed demonstration home featuring sod roofing, high-efficiency ventilation, solar panels, and steel-framed and soy-foam-insulated exterior walls. The design has since been replicated throughout the North Slope, where unhealthy indoor air quality due to poor ventilation is a significant issue. "Each time we do it, it's a little different, a little better," says executive director Daryl Kooley. Per-unit construction costs could fall as low as $200,000, compared to $500,000 or more for traditional wood-framed homes.

Puyallup, Wash.
The Puyallup Tribe's HUD-funded Place of Hidden Waters, a LEED Platinum 22-unit affordable-housing project modeled after traditional Coast Salish longhouses, was named 2012 Project of the Year by the U.S. Green Building Council, partly due to its triple-paned windows, geothermal pumps that draw heat from the earth, and rainwater collection systems. "We're very urban, and we're really trying to revitalize our culture," says housing authority executive director Annette Bryan. "This project fits in with the whole tribal goal."

Ukiah, Calif.
Northern California's Pinoleville Pomo Nation has nearly completed two prototype houses with straw-bale insulation and earthen clay walls, funded by HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. Modeled on the tribe's traditional roundhouses, the three-bedroom homes include rooftop solar panels, gray-water systems and geothermal heat pumps. "It's really the first building project that our tribe has undertaken," says Nathan Rich, who worked on the home that he and his family plan to move into in February. The tribe hopes to build another 15 homes nearby.

Ohkay Owingeh, N.M.
The Ohkay Owingeh Tribe is rehabilitating a historic pueblo that has been occupied continuously for at least 700 years. In 2005, only 60 or so of its several hundred homes were still standing, and just a dozen were inhabited. By the end of 2014, 34 Ohkay Owingeh families will live in the pueblo full-time. A total of 56 homes will be renovated in phases over the coming years, with efficient heating, windows and fixtures integrated within their original earthen walls; another 40 or so will be built from the ground up.

Freelance writer Nate Seltenrich covers science and the environment from Petaluma, California.

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