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Contact Green Building, Pacific Southwest

Pacific Southwest, Region 9

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

Tribal Green Building Codes: Development Guidance

Tribes, as sovereign nations, have broad opportunities to redefine the purpose, scope, goals and design of their systems to guide and manage construction on tribal lands.  Where no building codes are in force, tribes may have reduced control, or be subject to the application of codes that do not support sustainable and healthy building practices.

Building codes in general have definite benefits when properly developed and implemented. The Tribal Green Building Codes Workgroup developed the document, Benefits of Tribal Building Codes (PDF) (2pp, 396K) that outlines possible benefits for adopting tribal specific building codes for construction and development. Categories of benefits include:

  • Health and safety
  • Environment
  • Tribal Culture and Community Development
  • Tribal Sovereignty/Self-Sufficiency
  • Economic

If a tribe is interested in quickly adopting proven green building practices, consider requiring builders to meet EPA green building labeling programs to improve indoor air quality and conserve energy and water.

This guidance provides examples of a range of building code approaches, documents, and policies that are being developed and used by tribes to support sustainable, culturally appropriate, healthy, and affordable building. 

Tribes in the Pacific Southwest asked EPA for assistance in developing green building codes. To address this request, EPA brought together representatives from several federal agencies; tribal organizations, housing and environmental departments; and private and non-profit organizations to form the Tribal Green Building Codes Workgroup.

The Workgroup advances tribal goals in developing, implementing and enforcing culturally relevant green building codes, policies and programs leading to healthier, more sustainable communities. As an initial step, members of the Workgroup developed this codes information.  We welcome feedback from those involved in developing, adopting, or enforcing tribal building codes, and invite you to join the Workgroup. To learn more, please email: R9.info@epa.gov (with subject "Tribal Codes"), or call 415-972-3206.

Acknowledging the great diversity of tribes’ goals for sustainable built environments, this guidance is a resource for tribes, wherever they are along the spectrum; from adoption or adaptation of existing building codes and standards, to fundamentally different or innovative approaches to the built environment.

Included in the guidance:


Native Americans are the first green architects of the Americas.  Traditionally, Native Americans’ buildings were sustainable. Their structural designs were based on cultural values informed by many things including an intimate knowledge of place, its climate and resources, and technology.  Tribes often built to unwritten codes, to build structures that were safe, healthy, energy and water efficient, and used local resources.

Mesa Verde Multi-family Cliff Dwellings in Colorado made
from earthen materials.(Photo by National Park Service/Martha Smith)
Mesa Verde Multi-family Cliff Dwellings Exiting EPA (disclaimer) in Colorado
made from earthen material.

Compared to historical tribal green building practices, little exists today. However, opportunities exist and continue to evolve to support more sustainable tribal housing. For example, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) Exiting EPA (disclaimer) passed by Congress in 1996 provides tribes the flexibility to adopt and use their own building codes in NAHASDA-funded programs. However, since NAHASDA was passed, few resources or technical assistance have been available to assist tribes interested in developing or adopting codes. As a consequence, the majority of tribes have not adopted building or energy codes and tribal homes are often built to default building codes that lack energy or sustainability requirements.

State and local government codes, which often include energy conservation and other sustainable building requirements, do not apply on tribal lands. Therefore, tribes do not benefit from these codes unless they adopt them as well.

This Tribal Green Building Administrative Code Example (PDF) (24 pp, 677K) can be used as a template to guide a tribe in their selection for technical codes (i.e., building, electrical, plumbing etc.) to be adopted for their comprehensive building code.  For additional examples, the Native American Rights Fund, National Indian Law Library maintains a web-based catalog listing tribes that have adopted building codes and include a link to those codes. The research resource is available through their Tribal Law Gateway Exiting EPA (disclaimer) webpage.

DISCLAIMER: This online resource is intended to serve as a reference for tribes that want to incorporate more environmentally sustainable criteria into their building codes. The Tribal Building Codes Template is not intended to provide guidance on tribal government codes/ordinances. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA Web sites provided on the website. Providing references to non-EPA Web sites, companies, services, or products does not constitute an endorsement by EPA or any of its employees of the sponsors of the site or the information or products presented. Furthermore, EPA does not accept any responsibility for the opinions, ideas, data, or products presented at non-EPA Web sites, or guarantee the validity of the information provided.

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