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Pacific Southwest, Region 9

Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations

Tribal Green Building Codes: Adopting Codes

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The development of green building codes is at an early stage, and includes the development of tribal green building codes.  Developing and maintaining codes requires a tremendous investment of time, effort, and expertise.  Because of this, a lot of time and effort can be saved by referencing available, already existing green building codes and standards. 

Though many codes and standards may not fully address tribal priorities, they contain useful technical information and experience.  Where appropriate, tribes can apply, in part or in whole, existing codes and standards to meet their priorities. Tribes may also choose to develop an entirely new tribal code or system.

In summary, options available for tribes to consider in establishing codes include:

  • Adopting existing codes with little or no modification
  • Amending and adapting existing codes to better address tribal requirements
  • Developing entirely new tribal codes or systems.

In practice, tribes may choose one or a combination of these approaches, depending on many factors specific to each tribe and location.

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Examples - Adopting Existing Codes


The most common and least demanding approach to putting codes in place is to adopt model building codes. Governments adopting model codes consider which codes to adopt, as well as any related appendix chapters and referenced standards. In the code adoption process, it is also important to consider local climatic and geographic design criteria, including historical temperature and weather data such as:

  • Frost depth
  • Wind and snow loads
  • Flood risks
  • Local conditions (seismic risk factors, termite intensity, radon risk, etc.)

Amendments to model codes can be made to incorporate the goals and concerns important to the adopting jurisdiction. This means that even when different jurisdictions use the same model code, the requirements they are enforcing can be adapted to meet local conditions and priorities.

A consideration in adopting codes is that model building codes are usually sets of code and standard documents covering different building types (residential, commercial), and different aspects and building systems (fire, structure and general safety provisions, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, energy conservation, and now, green building). This can have cost implications since, for example, purchasing model codes and standards can be expensive. When adopting model codes, most jurisdictions only adopt the model codes that are relevant to their needs.

Because model codes can be complex, it is important to consider the relationship between different codes, or different editions of the same sets of model codes, to avoid contradictory or inconsistent requirements. To avoid these issues, a common practice is to adopt model codes as sets (usually of the same edition/year) rather than picking and choosing among model codes developed by different organizations. For example, for jurisdictions that have adopted the International Building Code for commercial buildings, adopting the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) may be a reasonable choice to consider because the IgCC is intended to be used in conjunction with the other I-Codes, rather than as a stand-alone code.

Many factors influence which codes to adopt. One factor is the desire to have building codes reasonably match those of the surrounding region to ensure that experienced designers and contractors are available to design and build to the code.

Where building codes have not been adopted, the process usually requires creating a building department or some other governance structure responsible for interpreting and enforcing codes and establishing financial support for these activities. Among the things to be determined in the adoption of codes are fees for permits, plan review and inspection procedures, and other services provided. The International Code Council has a set of code adoption resources Exiting EPA (disclaimer) on their website which includes information about the process of adopting building codes.

Finally, this process involves much more than adopting a set of codes. The capability and capacity of the adopting tribe to properly interpret and enforce the codes is critical. Even the best codes, if not enforced properly, cannot provide the protection and benefits they are intended to offer.

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Kayenta Townsip: First tribe to adopt International Green Building Code Kayenta Township adopted multiple existing codes as the "Kayenta Township Building Codes." Kayenta Township Commission passed Resolution KTCAU-67-11 (PDF) (30 pp, 544K) Exiting EPA (disclaimer) and adopted these Codes on August 8, 2011.

Kayenta Township, Navajo Nation The Kayenta Township Exiting EPA (disclaimer),  in the Navajo Nation, went through the whole process—developing a building department, a code adoption and enforcement process, and hiring staff to carry out the work of permitting, inspection and code enforcement.

In that process the Township adopted many of the ICC model codes, including an early version of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC).  Among the many considerations that the Township used for their decision to adopt the 2006 editions of the International codes, was that the 2009 codes required residential fire sprinklers, which they did not think were appropriate for many new homes within the jurisdiction.  The Kayenta Building Official describes the process they went through in a presentation: Kayenta Township Building & Safety Department, Tribal Green Building Code Summit Presentation (PDF) (16 pp, 264K). A brief outline of this process is below.

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Conduct initial research

  • What building codes or standards have been applied in the region?
  • What type of construction is driving the market (Commercial or Residential)?
  • What standards are professional registrants of record referencing?
  • What codes or standards were used in the construction of buildings in the community?
  • Are insurance carriers insuring properties in the community?

Identify Other Authorities Having Jurisdiction Over Land and Have Adopted Building Codes

  • Tribe
  • State
  • County/Municipality
  • Utility

Request for Assistance from Local Jurisdiction for Building Code Adoption

  • Maintain consistency in the region
  • Establish great partnerships up-front
  • Identify and address obstacles that exist
  • Possibly share resources
  • Why re-invent the wheel?

Procedures for Adopting Tribal Code/Ordinance (will vary by tribe)

  • Organization and Format of Code Notice and Reading Requirements
  • Public Participation; Written Statements
  • Process for Enacting/Adopting an Ordinance or Rule
  • Effective Date of Ordinances and Rules

Develop Code Implementation and Enforcement Authority

  • Build tribal code expertise (training, staffing)
  • Coordinate with external inspectors (local, state, contractors)

Kayenta Township Building Codes

International Green Construction Code, 2010, Public Version 2 (with special requirements)
International Energy Conservation Code, 2009 edition
International Building Code, 2006 edition
International Residential Code, 2006 edition
International Mechanical Code, 2006 edition
International Plumbing Code, 2006 edition
National Electric Code, 2005 edition
International Existing Building Code, 2006 edition
International Fuel Gas Code, 2006 edition

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Examples - Adapting or Amending Existing Codes

Some tribes adapt or amend building codes to assert cultural sovereignty, address tribal priorities, and build tribal capacity.


In the process of adopting building codes, it is common for the adopting government entity to make changes to them by deleting or adding parts or changing specific provisions.  This is typically done to address specific local concerns, conditions, or opportunities not addressed by the codes being adopted.  Such amendments are in addition to the normal set of climatic and geographic design criteria that must be provided by the adopting government to inform designers so they can plan for permit and inspection requirements and know what conditions and structural loads their designs must meet.

Amendments also often specify which appendix chapters or other rules or policies are adopted or excluded and what specific practices are to be adopted or exempted from coverage. In general, provisions provided as appendix chapters of codes are viewed as not universally applicable or necessary for all jurisdictions and are included as optional choices.

Some code appendices can include green options. For example, CALGreen's  Exiting EPA (disclaimer) residential and non-residential voluntary green measures are included in the code as two appendix chapters. Appendix chapters can also include things like gray water reuse, rainwater harvesting, or interface measures with land use plans, such as assuring solar access.

A good way to find examples of code amendments is to look at state and local code adoptions. The Bulk Resource Exiting EPA (disclaimer) site provides free access to many state and local building codes.

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Code Electives, Tiers or Options

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In recent years, a new concept in building codes has been developed, often called "stretch" or "reach" codes or, in the case of California's, CALGreen Code voluntary tiers of performance, which go beyond mandatory code requirements. These higher requirements are written in mandatory code language, so that when they are chosen they can be properly planned, reviewed and inspected.

This is a strategy that tribes could adopt to more easily enable higher performance building and can also be used as part of a strategy to increase requirements over time. The CALGreen Code version currently in place has two tiers above the mandatory baseline code. The Tier One requirements in place in 2012 are scheduled to become the baseline mandatory provisions in 2014, thus raising the energy, water and other performance requirements overtime.

The 2nd Edition of the California Housing and Community Development guide to the CALGreen code for Low-Rise Residential Construction (PDF) explains the mandatory provisions and the tiers for projects aiming to exceed the code's minimum requirements:

Third Edition of the CALGreen Code for Nonresidential Construction (PDF) 

Other examples include the Oregon Reach Code (PDF) and the Massachusetts Stretch Code.

Code Electives:  When the Kayenta Township adopted the 2010 International Green Construction Code Public Version 2 (IgCCPV2), they adopted specific jurisdictional requirements and project electives and in some cases amended it to meet their needs. The IgCC(PV2) jurisdictional electives adopted by the Township included the following specific requirements covering:

  • Conservation Area
  • Agricultural Land
  • Greenfield Sites
  • Site Disturbance Limits on Greenfield Sites
  • Stormwater Management
  • Light Pollution Control

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Adopting Specific Code Edition (Lack of Infrastructure for Fire Sprinklers in Homes): Some jurisdictions may find that an earlier edition of a model code fits their specific situation better than the most recent edition, and thus reduces the number of amendments that it needs to make. For tribes, many houses are in extremely rural or remote locations, and the lack of infrastructure and services can make many standard requirements in codes inappropriate or unreasonably difficult or expensive.

This was part of the reason the Kayenta Township chose the 2006 rather than 2009 editions of most of the I-Codes. In particular, the 2009 International Residential Code requires fire sprinklers in homes, which makes little sense for houses built in rural locations without water infrastructure. On the other hand, they chose the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) because they preferred the energy code provisions in that edition to those in the 2006 IECC.

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Code Amendments:  Other amendments the Kayenta Township made to their codes as can be seen in the Township Building Codes (PDF).  They used a notational device using asterisks (*) to indicate within the body of the code the type of amendment that has been made:

Indicates amendment(s) have been made to section.
Indicates new text has been added to section.
Indicates a new section or exception has been added.
Indicates a section or exception has been deleted in its entirety.

The amendment process can be a good way for tribes to introduce provisions covering their own historic or traditional designs and building methods and materials, or more generally, for regionally appropriate materials or methods not currently incorporated into the state or national model codes.

Traditional Structures:  In Hawaii, the County of Maui has adopted codes for construction of Indigenous Hawaiian architectural structures outlined in Chapter 36 of their building code. An excerpt from Chapter 36 is below:

This code shall be administered with due consideration given to the County policy that indigenous Hawaiian architecture furthers the County's compelling interests in cultural, environmental, and historic preservation; energy efficiency; economic development; aesthetic beauty; and public safety.”

Alternate materials, designs and methods of construction: 
Maui County, Hawaii Code of Ordinances, Title 16.26 – Buildings and Construction – Chapter 16.26.104 amended. An excerpt from Section 104 of the Maui Uniform Building Code is below:

“Section 104 of the Uniform Building Code is amended to read as follows…:

…104.2.8 Alternate materials, alternate design and methods of construction. The provisions of this code are not intended to prevent the use of any material, alternate design or method of construction not specifically prescribed by this code, including elements based on or inspired by principles of indigenous architecture, such as those associated with structures comprised of either rock walls or wood frames for the bottom portion of structures and thatch of different native grasses and leaves for the roof, provided any alternate has been approved and its use authorized by the building official…

…The following material are examples of the types of material that may be considered by the building official, if used for the construction or renovation of a structure that is based on or inspired by principles of indigenous architecture:

Wood for house timbers (walls): hamau, kauila, lama, nioi, and 'ohi'a; and

House thatch and lining material (roof): lala 'ama'u (fern fronds), lauhulu and lau mai'a (banana leaves)...”

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Amendments Covering Provisions not in Model Codes (Earthen Building Materials/Adobe, Straw Bale):

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The State of New Mexico's Building Codes, Rules and Laws include the following:

State of New Mexico's 2009 Earthen Building Materials Construction Code (PDF)

State of New Mexico's Code for Historic Earthen Buildings

The State of California has a voluntary straw bale construction code (PDF) which has been widely adopted by jurisdictions in California.

City of Tucson  and Pima County  Arizona have adopted local amendments for earthen building (adobe and rammed earth) and straw bale construction. 

Adopting Code Flexibility to Support Living Building Challenge

Examples of Indigenous Construction

The organization which has developed the LBC,
the International Living Future Institute Exiting EPA (disclaimer) sponsored an affordable housing Living Building Challenge competition, the Living Aleutian Home Design Competition Exiting EPA (disclaimer) in cooperation with the Aleutian Housing Authority (Alaska).

The Living Building Challenge Exiting EPA (disclaimer) (LBC), a certification program designed to encourage built projects which go beyond minimizing harm to create projects that are beneficial across the spectrum of their impacts. The LBC is an emerging standard for restorative and regenerative built projects, going far beyond the minimum requirements of even the most advanced building and land use codes.

The City of Seattle and Clark County,  Exiting EPA (disclaimer) Washington have passed ordinances that give their land use and building departments greater flexibility in enforcing codes to enable and encourage these high performance projects to be built. The development of integrated, comprehensive and holistic approaches to built projects surpasses typical code and regulatory policy and thinking. This approach also can apply to creating and adopting tribal codes and systems.

Amending Codes to Remove Barriers
Organizations that create building codes typically recommend that their codes be adopted without amendments. Codes are developed to be consistent and compatible with other provisions within a particular code and with other codes. Yet, the needs of each jurisdiction and community are different. Model codes tend to be developed to work reasonably well in any jurisdiction, and may not be a perfect fit for any of them. Because of the complexity of the codes, care should be taken in the amendment process to avoid unintended consequences or create gaps and conflicts in the code provisions. It can be helpful to research how similar communities have created their amendments. Considerations in creating amendments is how they may affect outside designers or contractors, increase the need for additional notice or instruction, and how they may affect plan review and inspection.

Limited Rural Access to Facilities for Building Materials Recycling
Kayenta Township on the Navajo Nation determined that due to their rural location and limited building materials recycling markets that they could not currently meet the minimum 50% Construction and Demolition Debris Recycling option in the IGCC Table 302.1, Section 502.1, so they adopted it with this amended language: Minimum percentage of waste material diverted from landfills — 20%. 

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Increased Kitchen Ventilation
Some tribes may face housing overcrowding that leads to cooking for large numbers of people on a continuous basis.  To reduce poor indoor air quality and mold associated with cooking, building codes can be amended to increase kitchen ventilation requirements. For some tribes, using outdoor kitchens has been a practical solution for avoiding indoor air quality issues caused by indoor cooking. Building codes can be amended to include outdoor kitchen facilities.

Doors Facing East

Traditional Navajo houses were built with the door facing East so they could greet the rising sun every morning. Code language could be incorporated to support this cultural priority.

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Developing and Adopting Tribal Codes

Some tribes are working to develop their own building codes to assert cultural sovereignty, address tribal priorities, and build tribal capacity.

The Pinoleville Pomo Nation’s  Exiting EPA (disclaimer) citizens wanted to design homes and associated codes that are expressions of Pinoleville Pomo culture, and further tribal goals of political sovereignty and environmental care.  This approach is an effort by the Tribe to create its own performance-based standards that permit the highest degree of design freedom, while also protecting health, safety and well-being of multiple constituencies: current residents, neighbors, and also future generations of people and non-humans that share local ecosystems.

Process:  Developing Tribal Performance-Based Codes
Example: The Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN) participated in a co-design process developed by the University of California, Berkeley’s Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability (CARES) Exiting EPA (disclaimer) to design housing that is culturally-inspired and meets tribal goals for sustainability, environmental harmony and political/economic sovereignty.

The final design included:

  • Renewable energy production and energy conservation to reduce dependence on outside service providers and to assure tribal reliance on clean energy.
  • Water conserving technologies such as grey water and rainwater catchment systems to reduce vulnerability to water shortages and support the on-site production of gardens.
  • Green/healthy materials such as straw bale, earthen plaster, non-toxic paints to address priority health problems among tribal citizens associated with housing.
  • Social sustainability strategies including the training of tribal labor, local-sourcing of materials, employing technologies that allow for local maintenance and upkeep, and building strategies that re-enforce tribal community bonds through shared labor, shared involvement in design, and community pride in housing, and the creation of spaces for gatherings, including large kitchens and outdoor areas.
  • Cultural elements such as rounded walls, east facing windows, spaces for prayer and reflection, and spaces for practicing traditional tribal arts.

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Process Overview

  • Identify community goals and values
  • Co-design
  • Develop a code template
  • Technical partner review
  • Create a library of documents
  • Develop Tribal Code Review Panel system

The Pinoleville Pomo Nation process:

  • After the initial design was completed, the PPN sought technical experts who supported the co-design process, and respected tribal desires.  This was especially important because during the building phase, modifications to the design were necessary to deal with budgetary and technical issues.
  • Once a final design was settled on, they developed a tribal code template to lay out the key tribal goals for construction and the underlying values.  The template includes performance standards that should be met, but allows designers and builders (including tribal citizens) to be creative in how those standards are met.  PPN had law students review the template and include language that improves accountability of designers and builders, but maintains a large degree of creative freedom.
  • Engaged technical partners again to figure out what resources and references, including existing codes, could be used to support the construction project. 
  • Accumulated resources and created a library of “code-relevant” documents. 
  • Developing a Code Review Panel system at the tribal, regional, and national levels to address specific code issues. The Review Panel will include tribal citizens who can keep tribal values “front and center” in the review process, and also includes technical experts who can identify potential problems with the design and construction of the buildings, and who can help evaluate the final product and monitor its ongoing performance.

Among the issues for the Panel to consider:

  • What resource documents are most relevant to the particular project? 
  • Who among the experts are qualified to evaluate and monitor design and construction?
  • What alternative building strategies might meet the values and goals of the Tribe at lower cost, or more quickly?
  • How and how often should progress be evaluated?
  • What corrections can or must be made in construction to meet the values and goals of the project?
  • What is the best way to assure that appropriate corrections are made? Ideally, the Tribe could negotiate with builders the best correction.  However, the Tribe needs to develop some capacity to hold recalcitrant builders accountable.

The PPN adopts the code template by resolution, and will assess and approve Review Panel recommendations


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