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Leading Cultural and Sustainable Building

2009 August 13

I first heard about Paula Allen and the Potawot Health Village in 2008, during a Regional Tribal Operations Committee meeting on green buildings. Paula’s name came up when people began discussing cultural values and a “sense of place” as a guide for sustainable building and land use practices.

These are certainly not new ideas in Indian Country.  However, the notion of local, cultural knowledge is not a major focus of today’s green building movement, so I was curious to learn more about Paula.  From what I’ve learned, she is truly deserving of her recognition as an EPA Southwest Pacific Region Environmental Award winner.

Paula is the traditional resource specialist for United Indian Health Services, Inc (UIHS),  a private, Indian owned, non-profit organization that provides out-patient health care for 15,000 Native Americans and their families in Arcata, CA.

The Potawot Health Village was completed in 2001. Paula ensured that the building and site reflected the cultural values of the local Native communities.  Potawot is located near several historic tribal villages that had been used for hunting, fishing and gathering traditional foods and medicines.  As Paula says, “Not understanding our history or being in connection with our spirituality is where a lot of our sickness comes from. It is rooted in those things.”

The design of Potawot also embodies the culture and values of the communities it serves.  From the outside, the facility looks like the traditional redwood plank houses of coastal tribes. Reclaimed redwood was creatively used on interior walls and regional native art and basketry are featured throughout the building. Restored wetlands and native grasses now grow on the site, along with gardens that provide traditional foods and medicinal herbs.

Stormwater from rooftops and parking surfaces serve as a supplemental water source for the project’s wetlands. Potawot planned their building locations to support and facilitate an optimal array of solar panels. The ultimate goal is to have the entire energy demand supplied by solar energy. The current size of the solar energy system is 42 Kilowatts and the current savings is allocated towards community outreach and educational programs.

Paula’s work is truly a unique and inspiring example of how traditional Native American culture and values can inform sustainable building design and land use decisions.  Her commitment to cultural values and wisdom, and her own sense of place have inspired many people – including me – to recognize cultural knowledge as an invaluable sustainable design resource.

About the Author: Michelle Baker works as the Tribal Green Building Coordinator in EPA’s Pacific Southwest Office. She works with the Tribal Solid Waste Team in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Solid Waste. Michelle primarily works with tribes in northern California on waste and materials management issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    August 13, 2009

    This is really inspiring to read. Local cultural identity should be an important part of any building program, and it is great to know that a very environmentally sensitive building can be built and still incorporate local culture and history. Here in Mission Viejo, we have a native American and Spanish history that the City tries to include in all its buildings and has recentljy began allowing more environmentally sensitive infrastructure and material to be incorporated into existing and new buildings. I am in a 100 unit condo complex across from the Pacific Hills Planned Community in an area of open land that is like a park with Oso Creek running through it and with horse farms and small truck farms, its like living in the country. All the buildings are in Spanish style. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  2. Johnny R. permalink
    August 14, 2009

    Sustainable building for 7 billion people and counting? That’s rediculous. Stop the nonsense and tell the truth. Slowly shrinking planet Earth cannot support a relentlessly growing economy. Peacefully reduce the human population and recycle 100% of all waste and garbage, or suffer an ecocidal collapse.

  3. Voyage.Home.Loans.CA permalink
    August 18, 2009

    Wow thanks for the informative post. Ever since working with my company we really strive to go green. It is always pleasant running across an article like this.

    Omar Atebar

  4. clarke permalink
    August 18, 2009

    Good article really I got some experience through your acme article…Nice to see a many solar manufacture companies arising day by day in order to make efforts in order to save our health from environmental pollution occurs in wasting many sorts of energies. And everyone must be keenly capitalized on how to use our electric energy in order to reduce bills and utilize the natural resource of solar power. Where I am owned two solar panels by using the ‘Earth4Energy’; which I am using it for my fridge and lights and fan in my house and I have built it own by using simple strides manual to build the solar panel, where I spent it just $100 to construct it. Now I manage to reduce my electricity bill up to 25%. And I am saving conventional electric energy.

  5. Patrick Tallarico permalink
    October 16, 2009

    Michelle, thanks for sharing this story! I supported EPA’s Indian Program for about 8 years and have been doing green building work for about 5 years, so it is great to hear how these two inherently connected worlds can come together in such practical ways. Green building in tribal communities is such a natural connection, and I hope that all tribes can access the resources to build green and incorporate their culture and history into the process. Although the USGBC doesn’t necessarily recognize a cultural connection in their current LEED Green Building Rating System, my hope is that it will as the rating system evolves. That way, architects and builders will have even more incentive to incorporate the values of the local population into their projects – inside and outside of Indian country. Congratulations to Paula on her award and to you for sharing the story.

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