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Sustainable Arctic Construction: Challenges Inspire Creativity

Re-purposing a reindeer facility into a new necropsy lab in Nome

The view of Norton Sound from the UAF Northwest Campus in Nome.

The view of Norton Sound from the UAF Northwest Campus in Nome.

Photos © Nichelle Seely

I’m crouched under a building, trying to sketch the location of water and wastewater lines as the winds rattles the paper in my hands and snow skitters around me. Using a pencil is clumsy with gloves, but the day is too cold not to wear them. A few yards away the waves in Norton Sound pound on the seawall—the beach is completely submerged beneath the storm surge.

I’m in Nome, on the Northwest extension campus for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where we are preparing to turn the tiny outdated science building into a cutting-edge necropsy lab, where classes of future scientists can be taught in the same space that necessary research will be carried out by the University staff and government scientists.

 

Entrance to the Science Building undergoing remodeling and repurposing.

Photos © Nichelle Seely

A Need, an Idea, and Money

The project began, as it always does, with a need, an idea, and a grant of money. As we all know, federal funding is tight, but the grant writers of UAF rise to the challenge. As usual, there’s strings attached to the capital: we can’t expand the footprint of the existing building, we can’t tear it down and build a new one, we can only modify what’s already here.

What’s here is a one-story weather-beaten structure measuring twenty-five by forty feet—it looks like a little house. The building sits on a post-and-pad foundation, with individual “feet” that rest directly on the gravel. The northwest corner is visibly sunken. The paint is worn, and the mechanical hoods are rusted out.

This petite edifice is one of a collection of small buildings that make up the UAF Northwest Campus. BDS Architects and our consulting engineers have been gradually helping the University in fixing them up as time and money become available. Most recently, we’ve converted the library into a distance learning and testing center. Before that, we put new roofs on three of the buildings, and before that, new foundations. We’ve connected all the buildings with a boardwalk and made interior improvements. The piecemeal upgrades are gradually changing the face of the campus, making it more relevant, high-tech, and better able to serve the needs of the users. This latest project is the most challenging one yet.

Historically, the building we are about to remodel has been used to teach anatomy and reindeer husbandry. Inside, there’s a hodgepodge of equipment and shelving, anatomical charts, and even a teaching skeleton. The finishes are worn and need replaced—unfortunately, there’s always the question of hazardous material, asbestos, and lead embedded in the building materials. We’ll have to include a report with the bid documents to make sure potential contractors are aware.

BDS has been instructed to re-design the space to accommodate the dual purposes of teaching and research. After many hours of meetings and consultation with university staff, facility managers, and laboratory experts, we’ve managed to cram in a fume hood for work with toxic chemicals; a drying oven to prepare tissue samples; freezers and refrigerators to store them; incubators to grow and maintain cultures; and an autoclave to sterilize equipment. The entire perimeter of the building is filled with equipment and cabinetry. The idea is that analysis of marine and bird life can be carried out right here in Nome, without needing to send specimens back to Fairbanks or elsewhere.

And that’s not all. The design calls for student tables, enough for twenty seats. There’s also a necropsy table where a seal or a caribou or part of a walrus can be laid out and cut up. A microphone and camera are suspended overhead, so the dissection being done can be recorded for future review or broadcast live as part of the distance learning program.

 

Exterior shot of the Science Building on the UAF Northwest Campus in Nome.

© Nichelle Seely

Consulting with Researchers

It’s exciting stuff—under the directorship of Bob Metcalf and with the aid of the mothership in Fairbanks, the little UAF Nome campus is leaping into the 21st century. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a brand new modern hospital in Nome and a need for trained medical staff. Some of the locals have already jumped in, and the campus recently graduated its first medical assistants.

Other organizations are taking notice and are deeply interested in what is happening in this frozen corner of the world. Local government agencies such as US Fish and Wildlife see opportunities to carry out their own research now that there’s going to be a lab to do it in. The recent avian deaths on Savoonga are an example. Gay Sheffield, the biologist who took charge of the dead bird samples sent in by residents, is one of the researchers consulted by the BDS design team.

In fact, it was during a meeting with Sheffield and other researchers that another question came up: could the lab be modified to accommodate another user group, namely the Korean Polar Research Institute (KOPRI)?

South Korea became a permanent observer on the Arctic Council this year. They are serious about their position, desiring to become a leader in Arctic research. They own an icebreaker, the Araon, which was launched in 2010. The ship is outfitted as a research vessel to study geophysics, biology, and oceanography and has been active in Antarctica as well as the Bering Sea and Norton Sound. It would be to their advantage to have a place in Nome where they could do occasional work.

Needless to say, I was fascinated. Imagine our little lab project becoming part of an international scientific effort—if only it were bigger, or if we were allowed to make it so. Practical questions soon arose—Korea uses a different electrical standard than the United States. We would need to incorporate adapters for their equipment. And what was their equipment likely to be? No one knew for sure, although educated guesses could be advanced. How could their needs be incorporated with the needs of the University? The KOPRI funding was on a different cycle, and no one knew if or how much monetary support the organization could or would provide to help. Maybe they could provide a mobile modular lab unit that could be carried on the icebreaker and staged in the parking lot behind the lab, then simply “plugged in” to the utility services. Without more information, we simply couldn’t make plans, and the lab project was already underway, with deadlines imposed by the grant. As much as we would have liked to accommodate KOPRI, as exciting as the potential collaboration was, the design team and University couldn’t delay without risking the original funding.

The discussion around the South Koreans sparked all kinds of other practical queries. How do we keep chemical spills and decayed animal tissue out of the city wastewater system? How do we accommodate the ventilation needs of a small space where extreme odors from specimens and chemical agents would need to be evacuated? We specified special traps on the sinks which could be emptied and cleaned before any questionable material went into the city system. An emergency shower would protect human occupants from accidental splashes. We designed a mechanical mezzanine over the lab, raising the roof to accommodate the massive ventilation units.

 

Weathered Science Building prior to renovations in Nome.

© Nichelle Seely

In addition, BDS worked to overhaul the building envelope. The thirty-year-old wood frame walls and roof simply weren’t enough to provide the kind of thermal efficiency we needed. The grant restrictions prevented us from simply tearing them down and building new ones, so BDS utilized the same strategy we had used on the library retrofit. We designed an outside “jacket,” essentially an additional framed wall clamped around the existing building, filled with foam insulation and covered with new siding to match other campus buildings. We did the same for the roof, increasing the R-value to meet the exacting standards of UAF and stand against the bitter temperatures of a winter in Nome.

Challenges inspire creativity: with many stops and starts and much thought and discussion, despite all the obstacles, the team of architects, engineers, researchers, and University staff crafted a building solution to meet most (if not all) of the projected needs. Now we’re in the production phase, drawing up plans and writing specifications in preparation for the day this project goes out for bid, and the UAF Northwest Campus gets a research lab which world players are already eyeing to use.

Anchorage-based Architect Nichelle Seely writes from across Alaska.

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

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