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UAF tests novel designs at new student housing

Posted: April 9, 2012 - 12:02am

FAIRBANKS — When the drone of a massive air compressor chugged to a halt Friday morning at a construction site near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Jack Hebert said with a smile that it would be the last time any fossil fuel would be used there.

Hebert, the president of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, was joking — but not by much. CCHRC and UAF are joining together to build a new student housing complex with the experimental buildings that they believe will function year-round without burning any on-site oil.

Planners for the development, dubbed the Sustainable Village, unveiled designs Friday for four new buildings at the site near UAF’s lower campus. By using super-insulated buildings, solar heat systems and biomass, they hope the project will ultimately help a region struggling with high energy costs.

Planners behind the development are setting expectations high from the start. Hebert thinks the lessons learned from the Sustainable Village development could transform cold-weather home-building techniques.

“We want this to be a worldwide example of what can be done at this latitude, and I think we’ll accomplish that,” Hebert said.

The project is unusual not only for its ambitions, but for how it has developed. CCHRC sought design ideas from UAF students last fall, and the winning five-student team joined planners this winter to come up with a prototype for the development.

The more ambitious elements of the student design, such as a “living machine” that would treat wastewater with plants and micro-organisms, didn’t make it into the buildings that will go up this summer. But the basic layout for the homes — boxy designs with flat roofs, an outside deck and big, south-facing windows — was largely intact from the student blueprints.

They’ll be integrated with a heavily insulated envelope, a solar-hydronic heating system and, most likely, a pellet stove for a mid-winter boost. Two different types of foundations will be used, along with four different types of wall systems. A 14-kilowatt array of solar panels at the site was funded by a UAF sustainability grant.

It’s a novel concept for student housing, which is rarely credited with innovative design. UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers said he’s heard from other campuses around the country that are eager to see how the unique partnership works.

Despite the unorthodox features, Hebert said, the project will be firmly rooted in reality.

He said the 1,500-square-foot buildings are expected to cost about $200,000 to construct, making them competitive with a typical family home in Fairbanks. They expect the project to be done in a short construction season, ready to be occupied in August.

The rent, which planners say will be comparable with UAF dorm rates, will pay for the project.

“It’s a better deal than I got on my home,” said a smiling Lyle Axelarris, a civil engineering student who helped design the concept.

The land on the site isn’t especially inspiring — wrist-thick black spruce surrounded by alders, with scattered young birch trees thrown into the mix. The area shows all the signs of patchy permafrost.

Hebert said that’s the point. By using a low-quality site, planners aim to show that proper building techniques can put successful homes on marginal northern land.

The 16 residents who will live in the development during its first year will have different responsibilities than a typical on-campus student. They’ll monitor the efficiency and functionality of the new buildings and will report their observations back to the designers.

“They literally will be live-in researchers,” Hebert said. “This isn’t a subdivision, this is a research project.”

Their feedback will affect the upcoming phases of the project. Each year, planners hope to add four new buildings, tweaking their design based on what works and what doesn’t. Hebert hopes those findings will help provide information for building more efficient, affordable homes throughout the north.

“This is going to be really cool,” Hebert said. “In 10 years, we’re going to look back and see how little we knew.”

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