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Southwest Alaska Aviation Training

Housing for student pilots under construction in Bethel


The Cold Climate Housing Research Center designed prototype student housing for the aviation training center in Bethel, where two of the dormitories are under construction.

Renderings courtesy of CCHRC

Bethel, Alaska, is like no other place on earth. The community of seven thousand people is four hundred miles east of Anchorage on the delta of two immense rivers, the Yukon River and the Kuskokwim River. No roads connect Bethel with the rest of Alaska or any other village, except in the winter when the Kuskokwim River freezes and part of it becomes an ice road. The region is tundra, wet marsh in the summer and frozen in the winter, with rolling hills and more than four hundred thousand charted lakes and ponds. The remote region has no roads because construction is a nearly impossible task on the boggy and unstable tundra. The soil is filled with ice, drains poorly, and usually collapses when it thaws. The tundra makes construction technically challenging and extremely costly.

Bethel is the regional hub for forty-six unique and remote communities that range in size from 29 people in Sleetmute to 1,093 in Hooper Bay. The population of the entire region is about 24,000. The population is young; in most villages, about half the population is under the age of eighteen.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a tundra ecosystem, with the 19.2-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge surrounding almost every village. Emperor geese, spectacled eider ducks, and tundra swans are among the migratory birds that nest in region. Yup’ik Eskimo have inhabited the region for more than twelve thousand years. Every village on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is an Alaska Native Village, a federally-recognized Indian Tribe. Every village is unique, influenced by the geography and climate. The Catholic Church established a boarding school in Saint Mary’s and the Moravian Church has a strong presence in some communities. For generations, Yup’ik Eskimo tribes were nomadic. In the 1930s, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs began building schools at fish camp sites, and families settled in one place in order to send children to schools, effectively ending the traditional nomadic way of life. The Yup’ik language is widely spoken across the region. Native arts and crafts, music, and dance flourish. Families depend upon subsistence salmon, seal, walrus, caribou, and other fish for much of their food.

Ground breaking for the dorms was October 16. From left, Kurt Kuhne, Executive Director, Yuut Elitnaurviat (People’s Learning Center), and Association of Village Council Presidents top brass: Michael J. Hoffman, Executive Vice President; Myron P. Naneng Sr., President; Henry Hunter, Chairman; and Marc D. Stemp, Vice President of Business Development.

Photo courtesy of AVCP


Harsh Subarctic Climate

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has a harsh subarctic climate. The Bering Sea brings extreme storms, hurricane force winds, heavy snow, rain, and extreme cold. The remote location and the extreme weather makes traveling from these villages very difficult—and people who live in this region must travel all the time. All services for the region are located in Bethel—the hospital, dentists, doctors, driver’s licenses, state offices, federal agencies, courts, and State Troopers. Physicals, prenatal care, tests, emergencies, stitches, broken bones, and teeth cleaning all require a plane trip to Bethel. Bethel has the PreMaternal Home where women from villages who are expecting a baby live in a dormitory for the month before the birth so they are close to the hospital and not hours—or days—away.

Bethel is also where Alaska Airlines can land a jet plane, so everyone going anywhere else must first travel to Bethel aboard a small plane. Bethel is truly unique; as the regional hub, Bethel has hotels, restaurants, and a thriving taxi industry. Because it is off the tourist path, Bethel is an authentic Alaska bush community.

During the short, ice-free part of summer, some villages can be reached by barge, but the rest of the year all travel is by small plane. All supplies, groceries, mail, and even heating fuel is flown into communities. Alaska State Troopers must fly out to villages to respond to incidents. The severe weather makes all travel unpredictable. Flights are commonly delayed for hours or even days due to weather.

The Yukon Kuskokwim Delta is one of the poorest regions in America. Villages are small, often containing only a post office, a school, a tribal office, and sometimes a city office. With the exception of Bethel, there are almost no jobs. People used to commercial fish for salmon on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, but the last two decades have seen a significant decline in salmon and commercial fishing has almost disappeared. The decline of salmon has impacted families across the region because salmon is an important part of Yup’ik culture and a major food source. Commercial fishing used to help families pay for heating fuel, but now that source of income is gone. Heating fuel costs have skyrocketed over the past few years. Heating fuel costs more than $6 a gallon in every village and more than $10 a gallon in some. Housing was not built to be energy efficient, and most homes use more than one thousand gallons in heating fuel every year. All electricity is produced using diesel generators, and the high cost of fuel, coupled with the high cost of transporting it to a rural location, has caused electric rates to soar.

The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) was one of the twelve regional organizations formed in Alaska in 1964 to help with the settlement of aboriginal land claims and Alaska Native Interest Land Claims Act (ANILCA). Since then, AVCP has grown into a diverse organization, providing a broad stream of services to the villages in the region. AVCP has the Village Public Safety Program that places officers in villages and offers programs to strengthen tribal governments, social service programs to build healthy families, natural resources programs to protect habitat, and economic development programs to bolster the regional economy. AVCP’s mission is to work with every village to improve the quality of life and culturally relevant programs and to promote self-determination, protection, and enhancement of Alaska Native culture and traditions through a working partnership with villages. The work that AVCP does is complicated by the remote location of all of the villages scattered over a fifty-nine thousand-square-mile region, roughly the size of Ohio. Infrastructure has been slow to arrive; personal computers are not common, and cell phone service is a recent development. In many villages, VHF radio is still the preferred method of communication. KYUK public radio, the only radio station that serves the region, broadcasts birthday messages across the region every day at 3 p.m.

AVCP has grown substantially over the last twenty years. The State of Alaska has a hard time providing services to villages, and AVCP has gradually taken over several state programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. AVCP is able to do a better job with programs; most of their staff speaks Yup’ik, and everyone is familiar with each village and the history of the region. Over the years, AVCP has taken on tasks that created a broader scope of services, making AVCP more diverse and better able to serve villages.

Construction began in mid-October on the demonstration project for two energy efficient student housing duplexes designed by Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

Photos courtesy of AVCP


‘Where People Get Their Wings’

One program AVCP has is Yuut Yaqungviat, a flight school. Yuut Yaqungviat translates as “Where People Get Their Wings.” Air travel is a way of life on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta; there are thirty thousand air miles flown every day, seven commuter airlines in the region, and more than 250 pilot jobs providing passenger and freight service to villages. Airlines have trouble recruiting and retaining pilots; typically, they hire pilots from outside the region, usually from outside Alaska. The pilots are unfamiliar with the weather, terrain, and culture, and most leave after gaining experience and banking enough flight miles. AVCP decided the best idea would be to train local people to be pilots. People from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta know the region and the weather and there is a clear need for jobs.

Yuut Yaqungviat provides pilot training to prepare students to work as first officers and commercial pilots at a fully equipped training hangar at the Bethel Airport, which has instructor offices and classroom space. The school owns three single-engine land training aircraft, one retractable gear complex aircraft, three flight simulators, and hosts the Medallion Foundation Program, a simulation tool. The pilot training is done under real-time conditions. Yuut Yaqungviat has graduated fifty-one private pilots, twenty-one instrument-rated private pilots, and sixteen commercial pilots. Of the commercial pilots, 92 percent are flying for Ravn Alaska (formerly Era Aviation), Grant, or Yute Air Alaska. The airlines in the region have committed to hiring 100 percent of the commercial pilot graduates.

Being a pilot is a high quality employment opportunity. It promotes a healthy role model and a position to aspire to in a region where drug and alcohol use is chronic and suicide rates are high. Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the nation, and the AVCP region has suicide rates six times higher than the state of Alaska average. Alaska Native pilots are an inspiration to young people all over the region.

Last winter Yuut Yaqungviat was forced suddenly to close. The school enrolls only ten students at a time, as required by FAA guidelines. The ten students were struggling to afford housing, heat, and electricity in Bethel—with the cost of heating exceeding $1,000 a month and electricity (which is subsidized for homes) averaging $400 a month. Food prices also increased as the cost of fuel drove transportation costs up. At the same time, Yuut Yaqungviat was facing high heating costs, unsubsidized electricity, and increasing costs for operating planes, leading to a gap in funding. Tuition did not meet the cost of operating a flight school with ten students, and an increasingly high cost of living was causing students to withdraw from the school.

Two things needed to be done—Yuut Yaqungviat needed a plan to keep operating and the cost of housing needed to be reduced for students. Yuut Yaqungviat developed a plan and will reopen in January 2015 with a new funding structure to get back on track. To resolve the issue of affordable student housing, AVCP partnered with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC).

The duplexes are adjacent to the Allanivik Hotel in Bethel and are each 2,250 square feet. They are being constructed utilizing local labor through the AVCP Housing Improvement Program.

Photos courtesy of AVCP


Developing Prototypes

CCHRC is an industry-based, non-profit corporation that develops and tests energy efficient, durable, healthy, and cost-effective building technologies for Alaska and the world’s cold climate regions. Located in Fairbanks, Alaska, the Research Center was conceived and developed by members of the Alaska State Home Builders Association and represents more than 1,200 building industry firms and groups. In 2006, the CCHRC Research and Testing Facility opened on land leased from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The building contains research facilities and allows staff to work closely with students, faculty, and researchers at the university. Alaska offers an excellent testing ground for cold-climate technologies and products. The geography provides the full range of climatic conditions a researcher would encounter across the northern United States—from the windy, cool, wet weather in Southeast Alaska to the very cold, snowy conditions across Alaska’s northern tier. Alaska’s cold season lasts for six months or longer, allowing ample time for researchers to conduct experiments and evaluate housing performance.

The Building Science Research program at CCHRC focuses on the unique challenges of building in Alaska’s extreme and diverse climates. Researchers test building systems and techniques, such as adding exterior foam to the wall in existing homes and in the lab to see what works in the real world. They produce reports for industry professionals, such as an HRV installation manual, as well as educational materials for the general public, such as the Consumer Guide to Home Heating. The goal of the Building Science Research program is to provide home builders, homeowners, and other stakeholders the information they need to improve shelter in the North. CCHRC has a Product Testing Lab designed to test the cold-climate performance of a wide variety of building products and systems from heating appliances to window shutters to firewood.

CCHRC developed the Sustainable Northern Shelter program to address the needs for sustainable rural housing in northern climates. CCHRC designers work with local residents and housing authorities to develop homes that reflect the culture, environment, and local resources of individual communities. The designs emphasize energy efficiency, affordability, and durability.

CCHRC designed a prototype-home with the community of Quinhagak in the AVCP region. Quinhagak is a village of 690 on the Kanektok River, less than a mile from the Bering Sea coast. Quinhagak’s housing is aging and has been compromised by extensive water infiltration, rot, and mold. Of particular concern are fifty-five homes from the 1970s that exhibit advanced structural damage and must be replaced. The village invited CCHRC to evaluate current housing and issue a report. The CCHRC design team traveled to Quinhagak to gather input from villagers on the problems with their current housing and explore possible solutions that the prototype could address. The primary goals of the design are to be energy efficient, warm, dry, mold free, durable, affordable, and replicable by local labor resources. CCHRC returned to the village in February with a preliminary design and floor plan, which was later approved by the village.

The house is octagonal, which lessens the surface area-to-volume ratio, significantly reducing the amount of surface area exposed to the cold compared to a rectangular model the same size. An elaturaq, or Arctic entry, is wrapped around two of the eight walls, further improving heating efficiency and protecting the home from wet winds. In Quinhagak, wind direction changes seasonally and wind-driven moisture is one of the primary causes of failure in the existing housing. The open floor plan was requested by the community to reflect traditional values. Unlike most foundations in the region, the Quinhagak prototype rests directly on an overbuilt gravel pad. The floor joists are elevated and soy-based polyurethane foam is sprayed through the joists directly on a geo-textile mat. This raft-like foundation provides an insulation value of R-60 and a very effective thermal break, which means heat from inside the home can’t escape through the floor joists directly into the ground. The walls of the prototype are comprised of 4-inch metal studs on the inside, a 3.5-inch plastic spacer in the middle, and a light-gauge angle-iron that holds the cladding (siding) 7.5 inches out from the inside of the stud. The spacer is nonconductive and prevents heat from escaping through the studs. Spray foam is applied continuously to the foundations, walls, and roof, creating a monolithic envelope with no gaps and no thermal bridging. The wall assembly is simple and super-insulated (R-40) without the added material of traditional double-wall construction. The wall is light enough that four men can carry it to the floor platform and install it. The 4-inch metal studs can be nested to reduce shipping costs to remote locations.

The home uses a small, high efficiency oil heating appliance and a clean-burning wood stove as backup. It contains a heat recovery ventilator to pre-heat incoming fresh air and maintain healthy indoor air quality. Energy efficient lighting was also installed. A local three-man construction crew worked with two CCHRC instructors to build the prototype in six weeks. The building can be constructed without heavy equipment (which is important in remote villages), and the materials were chosen for simplicity and ease of shipping.

Like the home in Quinhagak, CCHRC has developed several other prototype homes that can be easily and affordably reproduced throughout Alaska to provide much-needed housing. The program has grown to encompass more than a dozen villages throughout Alaska.

Funding for the project, which uses an integrated truss system, is from an Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development grant.

Photo courtesy of AVCP

When AVCP decided to construct dormitories for Yuut Yaqungviat, CCHRC was the first choice. In a region where heating fuel can exceed $10 a gallon, homes are aging and not energy efficient, and it takes as much as one thousand gallons of heating fuel a year to heat a home, the CCHRC dormitories would be an excellent demonstration project. AVCP invited Jack Hébert, President/CEO and founding chair of CCHRC, to make a presentation at the 2013 region-wide Economic Development Summit in Bethel; the goal of the summit was to address the region’s steep energy challenges. When Hébert spoke, the conference room at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center was absolutely silent. The information he presented could realistically change the economy and improve the quality of life of the region. CCHRC homes reduce energy use by 80 percent on average.

CCHRC is designing student dorms for Yuut Yaqungviat as an example of energy efficient, affordable housing for the Bethel region and to demonstrate the potential for new housing. The dorms are located in a prime location and will be a prototype that will test experimental technologies intended to improve energy performance and lower construction costs. The new dorms will provide much needed affordable housing for students, making it possible for Yuut Yaqungviat to train more local residents as pilots.

The material for construction was scheduled to be shipped on the last barge before the river freezes up and the dorm will be complete by March 2015.

Michelle DeCorso has worked with Alaska Native villages on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta since 1996. She is the Comprehensive Community Development Planner for the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, Alaska. Contact DeCorso at 800-478-3521.

This first appeared in the December 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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