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Climate Action through Indigenous Design

Published onOct 26, 2023
Climate Action through Indigenous Design

The climate crisis is one of the most pressing issues of our time; it threatens the survival of humans and the ecosystems upon which we depend, and Indigenous peoples are at the center of this threat. The impacts of climate change are not felt equally by all communities. Indigenous peoples, who have been living in close relationships with the environments they inhabit for thousands of years, are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the same vein, our communities are leading the way in addressing the climate crisis through innovative and sustainable practices.

Since time immemorial, Native American and Indigenous communities have lived in relationship with the environments of our ancestors, using traditional knowledge and practices to sustain livelihoods. However, the arrival of Europeans in North America brought about centuries of colonization, displacement, and cultural erasure. Today, Native Americans face challenges such as poverty, health disparities, and loss of cultural identity. These challenges are compounded by the impacts of climate change, which disproportionately affect Indigenous communities for two overarching reasons: first, because the lifeways of these communities are more thoroughly enmeshed with threatened, damaged ecosystems, and second, because Indigenous people (in the U.S. and elsewhere) have been displaced to lands that are more climate-stressed, and thus are the first to experience direct, tangible climate impacts.

Despite these challenges, Native American communities are leading the way in climate action. Several initiatives in what is now considered the United States of America promote sustainability and resilience in Indigenous communities through architecture. In this short piece, I will highlight three examples of powerful work using the built environment to achieve climate action and increase Indigenous sovereignty: Ohkay Owingeh, a Pueblo community, which takes a holistic approach to sustainability, incorporating traditional knowledge and practices into modern building techniques; the Wa-Di Housing Project at Kewa Pueblo, which demonstrates the potential for sustainable and culturally sensitive housing in Indigenous communities; and the Anahola Homesteads Housing Project in Hawaiʻi, which uses traditional building methods to decrease heat stress and energy consumption, while repurposing agricultural land for the community’s housing needs.

These initiatives address the immediate impacts of climate change and help to create the conditions for more sustainable and equitable futures for Indigenous communities. However, more work must be done to support these efforts and ensure that Indigenous communities have a voice in organizing global climate action. Architects, designers, engineers, and builders have critical roles in this work, as they have the power to shape the built environment. We can create a more sustainable and equitable future for all by working together and incorporating traditional knowledge and practices.

Case Study: Ohkay Owingeh, Cultural Sustainability

Children playing teeball and playing with a dog in an open yard, with small one and two-story housing in the background. The sky is bright and brilliantly blue with no clouds.

Ohkay Owingeh. The homes of the central village are organized around open plazas. Photo by Minesh Bacrania.

Ohkay Owingeh, a Pueblo community in northern New Mexico, collaborated with AOS Architects to create a comprehensive master plan that honors and preserves the community's rich cultural heritage. The project included new construction and renovations, with a strong focus on retaining and promoting the traditions that define the village. Throughout the project, the community's desires to preserve their cultural heritage and revitalize older structures were at the forefront.

The project integrated traditional elements and ways of building into contemporary models for living, employing mud adobe construction and earthen plaster finishes combined with kitchen and plumbing fixtures we see in everyday building practices. The result is a harmonious blend of traditional and modern features. The community's emphasis on reverting back to mud plaster construction materials was of critical importance; this return to locally sourced natural materials reflects the community's commitment to embracing sustainable and culturally sensitive building practices, reinforcing their strong connection to the land and its resources.

By incorporating the community's vision and values into the design and revitalization process, the Ohkay Owingeh project not only preserves their cultural heritage through built forms, but also creates modern living spaces that honor the past. The project is a testament to the power of community-driven processes and a significant stride towards place-specific sustainable design. It provides a precedent for how architecture can serve as a tool for community empowerment and cultural preservation.

Case Study: Wa-Di Housing Project at Kewa Pueblo

A grid of photos, including a view of one-story rectangular brick buildings arrayed around a central rocky wash, with a children's playground and cloudy sky in the background, and artists working indoors with differently colored beads and machinery.

Wa-Di Housing Project. Image of public open spaces and artists’ workshops. Image by AOS Architects.

The Wa-Di Housing Project at Kewa Pueblo in New Mexico exemplifies how communities can promote sustainability and resilience by incorporating traditional practices into modern building techniques. Completed in 2017, the project encompassed the construction of 41 energy-efficient homes, and the planning strategies thoughtfully incorporated aspects of the historic village's density while conscientiously avoiding direct replication.

The historic village's layout and spatial organization are reminiscent of the community's traditional architectural forms, but also incorporate modern planning standards such as trails, parking, and playgrounds. By adhering to similar density patterns, the project fosters a sense of continuity with the past while responding to the community's present needs. Learning from the past offered time-tested non-Western planning strategies, which were adapted by the architects to create a modern and sustainable living environment for the residents.

The homes were designed to reduce electricity use, with features such as passive solar design, energy-efficient appliances, and high-performance insulation. In addition, houses were constructed using panelized construction assembly, with components manufactured in a controlled off-site facility to minimize waste and speed up construction. The project incorporated a dense development pattern, connecting the new homes with sites that are important to the community's cultural heritage and offering close proximity to the historic village.

By drawing on traditional knowledge and practices, we can create buildings that are environmentally and culturally responsive. This approach can help communities reduce their ecological footprint, preserve their cultural heritage, and strengthen their resilience to climate change.

By embedding a deep respect for the Pueblo’s heritage and cultural knowledge with modern building techniques, the project balanced honoring the past and embracing a forward-thinking approach to the built environment. The result is a blend of contemporary energy-efficient homes that reflect the power of acknowledging the past while creating a vibrant and sustainable future.

Case Study: Anahola Homesteads Village Project

A computer-generated aerial rendering of four large gable-roofed buildings arrayed around a paved roundabout, with palm trees and other greenery surrounding the development. Also visible from this overhead view are a basketball court, small parking lot, and what might be agricultural fields.

Rendering of the Anahola Homesteads Village Project. Image by MASS Design Group.

The design of the Anahola Homesteads Village Project, situated in a small community on the island of Kaua'i, embraces Hawaiian vernacular architecture with live-edge timber structures, thatched roofs, and ample lanai (hybrid indoor-outdoor) spaces. The project utilizes traditional design elements to incorporate sustainable practices that address climate change. Thatched roofs with steep pitches contribute to natural cooling and ventilation, reducing the reliance on artificial cooling systems and decreasing energy consumption. Additionally, the project honors the natural energy flows of water, wind, infrastructure, and people, fostering a harmonious relationship with the surrounding environment and building massing. 

The traditional building practices of the Hawaiian Culture revolve around sustainable and locally sourced materials, including lava rock, coral, wood, and thatch, and this use of local materials is a key design feature of this proposed housing project. The traditional housing typology, known as a hale, usually features a single room with a thatched roof and open sides, providing natural ventilation and a strong connection to place. The proposed design incorporates these traditional characteristics to reflect their respect for the surrounding natural environment.

The Anahola Homesteads project goes beyond the grammar of buildings and addresses climate change by repurposing formerly monocropped agricultural lands into an affordable housing development for Native Hawaiians. Furthermore, the use of native and local materials helps reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation, while supporting the local economy.

Anahola Homesteads serves as a model for sustainable development that respects Native Hawaiian values while prioritizing cultural preservation and climate action. It exemplifies the transformative power of architecture, design, and community involvement in addressing our pressing global climate challenges. By combining local knowledge with modern sustainability practices, this project showcases how thoughtful, culturally sensitive development can thrive in a tropical environment such as Hawai’i. Through a committed community-driven process and repurposing agricultural lands, this project demonstrates how architecture can promote sustainable land use and mitigate the local effects of changes we are seeing in our climate. The project fosters a strong sense of identity and belonging in the community by preserving and revitalizing Native Hawaiian cultural heritage. The Anahola Homesteads Housing Project is not just a collection of housing units—it represents the possibility of a brighter future shaped by resilience and informed by traditional knowledge.

Opportunities for Co-Creation

Indigenous communities face significant challenges in addressing climate change, but existing traditional knowledge can contribute to climate action. Architects, designers, engineers, and builders are essential in promoting sustainable building practices while also learning from traditional knowledge.

As design professionals, we must prioritize cultural sensitivity and community engagement when working with Indigenous communities. This engagement is crucial to building trust, fostering collaboration, and ensuring that solutions meet the needs and priorities of specific communities. It involves actively listening to the voices of Indigenous community members, elders, and knowledge keepers and respecting their traditional knowledge and practices. For example, architects and designers can organize public meetings or workshops to provide opportunities for community members to share their insights, concerns, and aspirations.

Building trust also involves acknowledging historical injustices and working to establish partnerships based on mutual respect and reciprocity. By fostering collaboration, design professionals can work alongside Indigenous communities, involving them in decision-making and co-creating solutions that align with their cultural values and aspirations. These collaborative processes may include joint design charrettes where community members and design professionals come together to exchange ideas, visions, and expertise. Through these processes of listening, building trust, and fostering collaboration, we can work towards more sustainable and culturally sensitive solutions that honor the interconnectedness of all living things, including humans, plants, animals, and Mother Earth.

Working Towards Climate Action and Indigenous Rights

Despite the challenges faced by Indigenous communities, our wealth of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage presents an opportunity for collaboration in climate action. In prioritizing cultural sensitivity and collaborative approaches, architecture and design projects can become models for working with Indigenous communities in ways that respect their unique needs, values, culture, and knowledge. By listening to and learning from Indigenous communities, architects and designers can incorporate their perspectives and traditional knowledge into sustainable solutions that address both the climate crisis and Indigenous rights.

Embracing this model of collaboration, architecture and design projects have the potential to go beyond physical structures and contribute to the broader goals of empowering Indigenous communities and promoting their rights. These projects can enhance community well-being, preserve cultural heritage, and foster a sense of pride and ownership among Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, this collaborative approach can inspire practitioners in other fields, such as medicine, politics, and law, to adopt similar practices that prioritize Indigenous communities' unique needs and aspirations in their respective domains.

We must recognize the urgency of taking action on climate change. The consequences of inaction will be severe, affecting Indigenous communities and all people and living creatures on Earth. Architects, designers, engineers, and builders have unique responsibilities and resources for promoting sustainable building practices, building healthy communities in balance with their ecosystems, and making climate action a cornerstone of community development.

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