Leading Cultural and Sustainable Building

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.