Group developing efficient homes for rural Alaska

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2010

FAIRBANKS - With high fuel prices and harsh winter climes, constructing energy-efficient housing in rural Alaska communities can be a difficult task that is compounded by the prohibitively high costs.

Sean Manget / Alaska Journal Of Commerce
Sean Manget / Alaska Journal Of Commerce

In Fairbanks, Jack Hebert and a team of engineers with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center are rising to the challenge, designing and building prototype homes and empowering communities to build more of them for themselves.

In 2008, the CCHRC began its Sustainable Northern Shelter Program. CCHRC designs sustainable home technology, with its aim being to reduce the amount of fuel used to heat rural homes.

The group contracts with local crews to get the homes built. In fact, CCHRC officials don't actually build the homes; with input from the locals, they design it and the locals themselves build them.

Consultations with the community help establish what their cultural needs are, among other things, Hebert said.

The goal, Hebert said, is to enable local residents to build their own sustainable homes without the aid of outsiders.

"The wisdom of the people who have lived here for 10,000 years is important," Hebert said.

This manifests in the architecture of each prototype home, be it the shape of the home or the size and openness of each room, he said.

The most recent example of the group's efforts is a prototype home being built in Quinhagak, a community of 680 people just south of Bethel.

Community members wanted an octagonal house with rooms that opened into a larger main living area, Hebert said. The octagonal shape actually played into the purpose of the project in more than one way, Hebert said. It "spills wind well."

The end goal is to reduce energy use by 80 percent, Hebert said.

A previous project, a prototype home in Anaktuvuk Pass, achieved a similar goal, Hebert said. In fact, it exceeded that goal, reducing the use of heating fuel by 90 percent.

With the project now nearing completion, the researchers will then show local residents how to take the pieces of an old, disassembled home and use those components to construct yet another sustainable home.

Community interest in the project has been significant, Hebert said.

"We want them to take ownership. Not just in title. It's truly theirs," he said.

The project should cost about $220,000, Hebert said, and the economic benefits of enabling local crews to build more homes for themselves are important as well.

"We want to keep as many jobs, and create as many jobs, as we can there," Hebert said. "Every dollar that leaves the community is a lost dollar."

Hebert said he believes the strength of a community's economy can be tracked, in part, by how well its housing market is doing. He believes establishing a strong construction and real estate market in the village will have a positive effect.

"As housing goes, so does the nation," Hebert said.

Hebert said although researchers at the center are interested in helping villages as much as they can, they know that outside interference can be unwelcome. This is why they wait to first be invited into the community.

"If we're not invited, we're not going to push ourselves onto folks," Hebert said. "We don't want to dictate. We want to collaborate. We don't advertise. We have a very full agenda, and we're in very high demand. We're in about 10 different villages developing similar projects. We're pretty close to capacity."

Funding for the center's activities comes from a variety of state and federal sources, in addition to private donors. Within the state, the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. has been a consistent supporter, Hebert said. Federally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are staunch financiers, along with the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The center, located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, serves as a laboratory and testing ground for cold climate technology. Walking into the building, one can immediately see a masonry heater, which can burn through wood more thoroughly, ensuring none is wasted.

"This building is the most energy-efficient building at this latitude in the world," Hebert said.

In one room, a side view of a wall offers a glimpse of the various layers of material that would insulate a building and keep moisture out, trapping heat inside and cutting costs associate with it.

Behind the building, a smaller-scale version of the Quinhagak prototype home stands in a snowy field. It's significantly smaller than the real deal, but the technology used to insulate the house is similar to what was deployed in the village.

Hebert said he finds himself traveling frequently to involve himself in the projects his team works on. He points to a photo on his office wall that shows him posing with a villager who he described as being "like a brother" to him.

Working so closely with local communities, and helping residents improve their quality of life, creates many such friendships, Hebert said.

"And that is a really, really wonderful thing to be a part of," he said.

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