Tribe & Technology: How Building Innovation is Supporting Tribal Citizens

April 5, 2023|Drew Deatherage & Jason Holuby, AIA, New Fire Native Design Group

Tribal architectural projects may vary widely in type, size, and priorities, but they generally share one common characteristic: every design decision is made with consideration of how it serves tribal citizens. Architects must keep this consideration in mind during conversations about integrating innovative technology solutions into their projects – because today’s leading-edge technology can absolutely create opportunities for tribes and their citizens.

Well-designed technology solutions can bring communities closer together, lessen facilities’ impact on the environment, and reduce long-term operational costs. Achieving these building innovation advantages requires upfront cost-to-benefit conversations and thoughtful, collaborative design. With greater awareness of how technology can support shared goals, project partners and tribal leaders can create more effective and efficient spaces.

Choctaw HQ leverages technology to support future flexibility

We’ve seen technology drive building innovation in projects large and small, in support of a range of operational objectives. Flexibility was the primary challenge for the design of the Choctaw Nation’s 500,000-square-foot headquarters facility. In pulling government services from offices at more than 30 locations into a single, easily accessible building, Choctaw Nation was well aware how unplanned growth could get out of hand. The Nation tasked FSB Architects + Engineers with designing a building that reflected the tribe’s heritage and achievement while also supporting future growth.

To accommodate this balancing act, FSB designed the five-story building with a raised floor system and movable walls throughout. Transforming today’s suite of enclosed offices into tomorrow’s conference room is an easier task due to technology quite literally embedded into the modular DIRTT walls. Floorplan changes can be made virtually overnight with minimal disruption by “unplugging” the wall systems and reconfiguring them where needed.

Much of the facility’s connectivity is supported by the use of digital electricity. This low voltage solution helps lower both upfront construction and long-term operational costs. It also delivers the plug-and-play capabilities needed to support the adaptable interior footprint.

To learn more about intelligent low-voltage lighting, download our free guide, The Path to Lower Lighting Costs and Greater System Flexibility

The Cherokee Nation tests efficiency improvements for impact

The Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the largest tribe in the nation, which gives it the responsibility to care for more 140,000 citizens within its tribal boundaries alone. That responsibility is why the tribe elected to explore technology-driven building innovation opportunities on a small test case first.

The tribal council authorized the construction of a $5 million public park, named after the late Chief Wilma P. Mankiller Cherokee, known for her activism. Covering roughly 6.25 acres, the park is meant as a gathering place, one that reflects elements of the Cherokee language, culture and traditions in its design and landscaping. However, the 3,000-square-foot community building at the center of the park presented an opportunity to test technology-driven energy efficient solutions on a safe scale.

Demonstrating the operational efficiencies possible on a test project makes it much more feasible to move advanced solutions forward on a larger facility, where the technology may command a larger part of the overall budget, and generate a far better ROI.

Guardrails for greater technology adoption

While project and community needs vary widely, we’ve seen a few common roadblocks to greater adoption of technology for tribal projects. With the following principles in mind, project partners and tribal leaders may be able to more effectively integrate technology into their building innovations.

  • Ease of use and maintenance should be front of mind, especially for rural facilities. Even the most innovative technology requires regular maintenance. This can be a hurdle to innovation for smaller tribes or facilities located in more rural areas. These projects may be limited by the availability of on-site maintenance or IT expertise to service technology systems. If an advanced system requires specific maintenance knowledge, it may make the solutions impractical for some tribal facilities.

On the other hand, certain smart building solutions may provide advanced insight into maintenance needs or even offer opportunities for remote troubleshooting. Highlighting the ease of use and operation for integrated systems is an important value proposition.

  • Sustainable design methods are a means to an end, not an end itself. By and large, Native American communities work to serve as stewards for the environment, which makes sustainable design features a priority for many tribal projects. However, few tribes are interested in pursuing green building certifications or sustainability for its own sake. Good, efficient design is simply seen as the right way to do things. To this end, it’s important to emphasize the adoption of technology as a solution for reducing energy usage, not for showcasing innovation.
  • Any added upfront cost must demonstrate value to tribal citizens. Budget defines every construction project, but tribes are shaped by this constraint in unique ways. Census data reveals that approximately 27% of Native Americans live in poverty, compared to the average of 15% for the broader U.S. population. Tribal leaders take seriously their responsibility for investing only as much as necessary to achieve project goals, which in turn support their citizens’ wellbeing. Investments in hotels or casinos, for example, are made to attract guests who generate revenue, which is invested back into the community.

Technology investments must fit within this playbook. Any solutions must fit within the initial budget and/or demonstrate clear long-term operational savings. Solutions that can achieve both, in line with broader goals, are more likely to find their way into future projects. However, it’s important for architects to educate tribal stakeholders on these cost considerations as solutions become more cost competitive due to broader adoptions over time.

Conversations must focus on technology’s ability to support the tribe’s mission to care for its people and land. Today’s technology solutions very much support these goals. However, achieving these goals depends upon architects’ and engineers’ work to build awareness as innovation advances and costs fall.

Categories: blog, Tribe & Technology