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Solar design in tribal housing codes could kick-start real change

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Establishing energy-friendly housing codes ? particularly those that use passive solar principles ? offers a major potential, very little explored, when it comes to saving through efficiency.

At a time when mortgages are becoming more available to reservation residents and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has put forth viable initiatives for tribal housing starts, the design and siting of new homes, as well as governmental, business and educational structures on reservations, can make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, HUD's Indian Housing Program, overhauled through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996, included no energy efficiency incentives in new buildings.

Buildings consume more than one-third of all energy used within the United States. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of new homes use principles of passive solar design. To date, we don't know of any tribal governments that have mandated energy conservation or solar energy through building codes ? although when viewed aside standard American housing development practice, they measure no worse.

When incorporated into the initial building process, passive solar design can be relatively inexpensive and yet it can save significant amounts of money for the building owner, both over short and long terms. In a finely reasoned article published by Native Americas magazine, Cherokee attorney Dean Suagee (University of Vermont Law School) argues persuasively that Indian country could lead in this regard by encouraging or even requiring, via building codes and land-use ordinances, the use of solar energy in new buildings.

Building and land-use ordinances are direct tools, as contrasted to subsidies and tax-incentives, using the powers of law making available to tribal legislative bodies. Just the simple requirement that new structures be built on an east-west axis, thus exposing the south walls of buildings to maximum sun exposure will make a big difference. Adding windows, sun spaces and other methods of passively 'capturing' the solar heat (energy) also significantly enhance the effort, as will the provision of masonry walls, concrete or masonry floors. Presently, homes are oriented primarily to face the particular road or street, with no consideration of the sun's presence and its obvious impact to the home.

Suagee points to an excellent resource published by HUD in 1994 but never distributed. Titled, 'Our Home: Buildings of the Land: Energy Efficiency Guide for Indian Country,' this booklet is still available, although HUD has not encouraged its use. Two other sources that will update the 1994 booklet are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Passive Solar Industries Council (PSIC). For models of building codes that can assist tribes in this direction, Suagee suggests a good look at the Model Energy Code (MEC) published by the Council of American Building Officials in 1983 and periodically updated since then.

As Suagee argues, the marketplace by itself is not moving the country at large, nor Indian country toward a future that reduces the burning and our tremendous dependence on fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy.

As with all things, sometimes practicality itself (oil and coal are very much still the standard and remain important economic resources for some Indian nations) and the tremendous inertia of the status quo can keep a good and necessary idea from becoming reality. But this need not be so.

Tribal leadership that wants to force the issue could make decisions that can truly begin to make positive impacts on the future of that Seventh Generation.

Today's energy imbalance needs to be rectified. In this regard, policies that prioritize conservation and incorporate renewable energy solutions will help to build a more viable future.

A challenge goes out to all Indian leaders to express, through practical actions and to whatever degree possible, their consciousness of cultural ethics that recognize our direct connections to the natural world.