This blog is part of our series spotlighting leaders in the pursuit and development of Responsible Renewables projects. This series is being hosted in collaboration with Schneider Electric and Korn Ferry. For a background on responsible renewables, we encourage you to start with the introductory blog which explores the issues and opportunities.
The next installment of our responsible renewables spotlight series focuses on JackRabbit Development, a company with a mission to positively improve the quality of life for humanity and our world through unique, sustainable design and building solutions.
JackRabbit Development is a native women-owned company that prioritizes resilient and sustainable solutions for adapting to a changing climate, while designing with the community in mind. An industry-leader in sustainable building, JackRabbit creates self-sustaining, efficient, “smart” homes and structures that provide a better way to live. Their projects vary in scope, from master planned communities to design builds for corporate and residential clients. With each project, their solutions promote sustainable living through net-zero/net-positive, water conservation, and even edible landscaping.
JackRabbit’s founder, Tahda A. Ahtone Esq., is an enrolled citizen of the Kiowa Tribe. Ahtone has lived all over North America, from boarding school in Tennessee to undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Asheville, where she not only started her first company, but also started the first-ever American Indian student organization on campus. She received an MLS from Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (ASU), focusing on Federal Indian Law and economic development. Ahtone then received a Juris Doctorate from ASU in December 2013 and passed the Colorado and Navajo Nation Bar in 2014.
Tahda Ahtone presenting to ASU on JackRabbit Homes and how important sustainable resilient design is for the future. Photo Credit:JackRabbit Development
During her time living and working on the Navajo Reservation Ahtone was motivated to follow her passion for holistic, sustainable building to improve the lives of her community and environment. She transitioned from her attorney work to found JackRabbit Development, a Native-Women owned LLC in 2017. We caught up with Ahtone to learn more about JackRabbit, and her unique perspective on sustainable building practices.
We'd love to learn more about JackRabbit Development. We know that you take sustainable living and resilient design to the next level. Could you tell us a bit more about the company and your mission?
We started with off-grid building about five years ago, and that was really our focus — looking at off-grid building and how to achieve that in American Indian country because there is such a lack of infrastructure within the community. I lived on a reservation in a house with no electricity when I was interning for a summer in law school, so I understand that daily struggle. Experiencing, off-reservation experiences where switching on a light is an everyday thing, I was really trying to help achieve getting electricity and running water to people. The more we got into it, the more that we realized that what we were really doing was sustainable design and net zero design - because that is the only way you can achieve living off-grid is at net zero.
With all of that in mind, when we started applying a larger perspective, JackRabbit morphed into a larger idea of sustainability. We were now more than residential housing or commercial construction; we began to understand and address how sustainability is affected by our built environment.
"We started looking at living aspects like water, food, energy, healthcare, childcare, and elderly care, and how that has really impacted our idea around sustainability and building sustainable communities."
We aim to focus on all aspects and how they impact our quality of life and the quality of life of the people who will live in our structures.
It is important to note that, although we have started this work on American Indian land because I am an enrolled citizen and that is where I do a lot of my work, the reality is that these technologies need to be implemented broadly across the board. This further led us into some policy work, and really trying to help people understand that many of the issues we see have come from the codes and regulations. In the past, we got to our current state primarily due to the availability of cost-effective energy and air conditioning in a lot of places, and the only remedy to that is with the construction of higher quality buildings.
Additionally, we really focus on resiliency at JackRabbit – we were talking about resiliency years ago, before it was “cool”. In the past several years, however, it has become a key and important term everywhere. To me, the idea of resiliency comes down to embodied energy. If you build structures that are easily destructible, then all of that embodied energy is also in the building. So, the appliances, clothes, food, and all that stuff there becomes unsustainable waste, and that is where we get more into climate change. What matters to me is how our structures will impact the planet for decades, and centuries from now. For example, we are now seeing larger and destructive fields, which research predicted years ago would happen by 2030, and we’re actually seeing this in present times. At this critical point in time, we must sharpen our focus on resiliency, and getting through the storms. At JackRabbit, we are very passionate about helping communities understand that and build with those intentions. It is much like the fable of The Three Little Pigs, which is a funny analogy, but true. If you build a structure out of hay, it is going blow down. If you build out of sticks, it is going to blow down. So, you really must build the structure using higher quality, stronger materials to withstand the winds and tests of time, taking care not to harm the environment in the process. This is a delicate balance, and that takes traditional knowledge that has been around for centuries and truly mirroring and partnering that with modern technology.
Photos from a community build workshop of a hogan for an Airbnb beside Antelope Canyon. The hogan used thermal mass for the structural walls, making it highly insulated.
Photo Credit:JackRabbit Development
Jack Rabbit seems to be involved at every stage of the green build process. What drives your commitment to these sustainable and inclusive practices?
In many ways, I do this for my family — my mother, and the fact that I have children drives me to take on these challenges. My mom always prioritized recycling and promoted healthy living. Now that I have children, I have begun to think deeply about what type of world I am leaving my children and their children to come. I cannot continue to only think about myself and the issues I face or observe right now. I want to use my Girl Scout teachings and leave everything in a better place than when it was found. So, at JackRabbit, I have the opportunity to think about how I can support even more people in this journey.
How does Jack Rabbit partner with the community directly? You mentioned being involved at the policy level — who are you collaborating with in these efforts?
We work with the community at every level. I was just in the President's office at the Navajo Nation, and later I am going to meet with an economic development director for another tribe. I try to be as involved as possible, which is why we also work at the community level with grassroots organizations and nonprofits. We even have a sister organization, Jack Rabbit Homes, which is a nonprofit that we volunteer with to create quality homes that save money and promote sustainable lifestyles. This crucial work really helps to bring sustainable and accessible housing to people who would not otherwise have it, truly integrating ourselves deeper into the community at every level.
In short, we are involved at all levels of the community, because to get sustainability incorporated in the community, you must have the community’s buy-in. Sustainability cannot just be a top-down approach.
It must be a community-wide approach, and once the community buys in, it is a lot easier to get the layers to move forward on what they need to do to implement plans, policies and regulations for the local community.
What about some members of your community, or some partners who may be more reluctant to this sort of change and the things that are necessary to make this progress happen? How do you inspire sustainable change and get that necessary buy-in across multiple stakeholders?
I think what it really boils down to is education. For example, sustainability is more affordable over the long run, but there is often an assumption that sustainable choices are expensive. The cost upfront can be heavier, but operationally long-term, it is often more affordable and that makes it much better for the community, in that sense. So, we really try to educate people throughout the total process. Much of the time it has to do with educating on costs in the manufacturing stage t to better explain the return on the investment over time. That has certainly been the biggest hurdle, just having to educate people around what sustainable solutions are, and how much they actually cost.
"Sustainability is not just a nice thing to do, but it is economically feasible and will be even more economical over time."
Furthermore, the Indigenous community is not included in many of these sustainability discussions on a national level, yet so much of this is Indigenous knowledge and so much of what we are now trying to go back to and hearken to is what Indigenous tribes have always practiced — respecting and honoring nature. We are using ancient knowledge and information and implementing it further with modern technology. But we do need more, more voices like mine to speak up and act. We cannot talk about energy without talking about our water usage, and we cannot talk about energy without talking about our built environment. It is all connected, and natives need to be involved in the solution.
JackRabbit helped install the rainwater harvesting system on a home in Bodega, California. The system was
paid for by the Research Conservation District (RCD), in the hope that people stop taking so much water from the
creek so that the salmon have a chance to return.
Photo Credit: JackRabbit Development
JackRabbit is committed to continuing to impact our lived experience by providing alternative solutions to building better lives through healthy lifestyles, education, awareness, and sustainable solutions. Their green building approaches demonstrate that they are not only a leader in responsible use of renewable resources, but that they are foundationally helping communities become more environmentally and socially aware at their core.