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Innovations in Alaska Building Techniques

Efficiency and sustainability coming ‘full circle’


Rendering courtesy of McCool Carlson Green

In Alaska, the lines between the natural and man-made world are beginning to blur, and old materials and ideas are resurfacing in leading-edge projects across the state.

The concept of reuse and sustainability in building can be found everywhere from architectural design to the materials used in construction. One recently completed project was built with reclaimed wood from a nearby fish cannery: a nod to the region’s history and cultural values. Other new buildings take cues from the natural world around them, incorporating existing resources like wind, light, and thermal energy. A few projects seek sustainability by combining modern architecture with traditional ideas of family and community, while others continue to push the envelope of environmental renewal.

Alaskan builders are using time-tested values and resources to reach innovative new milestones in environmental and cultural sustainability.


Net-Positive Building

In Anchorage, one architectural firm hopes to take sustainability a step further.

McCool Carlson Green’s portfolio already includes the Alaska Airlines Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a plethora of Anchorage public schools, various aspects of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and the Anchorage Federal Building and Nesbett Courthouse, among other projects. Now, the planning and design firm is on track to complete the first building in Alaska certified under the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC), a comprehensive set of international standards for net-positive building.

Architect Jason Gamache, an associate with McCool Carlson Green, described the challenge as the next step in innovative sustainability: a successor to the now-standard LEED certification.

“LEED was essentially created to transform the market in terms of how we manufacture and purchase materials for construction,” says Gamache, calling the rating system a prescriptive-based metric that allows builders to pick and choose among specific criteria. It emphasized indoor air quality and recycled materials and other health and sustainability standards that are “now the minimum of what we do,” he says.

The innovations of yesterday are becoming the standards of today: Gamache says his firm is now striving to adhere to a new level of efficiency and beauty in architecture.

McCool Carlson Green is working with the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, or RurAL CAP, to design a new housing facility in Anchorage’s Muldoon neighborhood. The project is the first LBC-registered challenge in Alaska, according to Gamache.

“We are really excited that the owner is being very progressive and forward-thinking, but also taking the long view,” he says.

The LBC covers nearly every sphere of design and construction: “a much more holistic approach,” Gamache says.

Builders are challenged with seven performance categories—place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty. Those performance categories are subdivided into a total of twenty imperatives, and Gamache says LBC success is measured over a full year of building occupancy following completion of the project. While the challenge standards are rigorous, they represent one of the latest innovations in building sustainability.

“It’s really kind of the forward trajectory for a lot of builders,” Gamache says. “The imperatives stretch quite a bit further than LEED does.”

In Seattle, there’s the Bullitt Center; a LBC project opened in 2013 and touted as “The greenest commercial building in the world.” It features net-zero energy, net-zero water, and net-zero carbon, composting toilets, toxic-free materials, high-performance windows that accommodate 80-percent daylighting, and a projected 250-year lifespan.

Gamache says details like those are innovations that, ultimately, bring benefit to their environment rather than just doing less harm. Sustainability is simply the outcome of good design, he says.

As of December, he says the LBC concept for the RurALCAP residence was still in the very early design phases, but architects are already planning to use some key measures in order to bring the building up to the cutting edge of sustainability and efficiency.

The housing facility would incorporate displacement ventilation, Gamache says; a concept that banks on natural rules of heat displacement. Instead of pumping hot air from vents in a room’s ceiling—“fairly inefficient”—displacement ventilation conditions outside air, warms it, and pumps it into a space from a lower level. The hot air then rises, warming the rest of the building and saving valuable energy.

In fact, the MCG associate says, the RurALCAP project aims to achieve 110 percent energy production by incorporating solar panels.

“The goal is to have more production than we have consumption,” he says. “It’s very ambitious.”

While the building would still draw electricity from Anchorage’s power grid, it would also produce solar power that could be resold to a local energy utility. Overcast days and Anchorage’s long, dark winters make that difficult, Gamache says, and one big challenge involves finding a way to harness and use solar energy during the months when light is low and demand for power is high.

But careful design and planning can make it possible, he says.

The RurALCAP project also abstains from combustion, opting for all-electric boilers and other appliances, and calls for the use of a geothermal heat pump to up efficiency even more. The heating technology, common in other parts of the world, uses some very basic scientific ideas. Simply put, Gamache says, “If you go about twenty feet down below the earth, you get to the temperature that’s sort of the average annual temperature of the outside.”

The heat pumps work by transferring subsurface warmth to the surface or, in warmer months, siphoning heat back into the ground for a cooling effect. According to the Fairbanks-based Cold Climate Housing Research Center, there are currently about fifty geothermal heat pumps found throughout the state, including several residential installations, a Fairbanks elementary school, and a Juneau airport terminal.

Gamache says the design would mesh well with the tenets of the LBC and MCG’s ideas for the RurALCAP residential facility. And even though those ideas are helping realize new-generation design developments, they’re actually reiterations of tried-and-true, almost indigenous design. Look at some of Alaska’s first residents, Gamache says. Back then, buildings were sustainable because Arctic survival mandated it.

“They built buildings with lots of thermal mass and sod roofs and Arctic entries,” he says. “It’s actually a very, very old technology, and a very, very old thought.”

Today, he says, uncertainty about the future of fossil fuels and an increasing desire to preserve the natural world have led to a return to those old thoughts. Designers seek, more than ever, to mesh the built and natural worlds.

In that vein, the latest innovations in Alaska building take cues from ancient ideas of efficiency and sustainability.

“We can take a lot of those same principles and integrate them with modern technology,” Gamache says. “It is very much coming full circle.”


Integrated Healthcare

One prominent example: The Kenai Peninsula’s Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Dena’ina Wellness Center, which celebrated its grand opening last summer.

The fifty-two thousand-square-foot medical clinic, owned and operated by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, was designed by Architects Alaska and Klauder and Company Architects of Kenai and built by Neeser Construction. It houses primary care, medical, dental, behavioral health, chemical dependency, wellness, physical therapy, pharmacy support, and traditional healing services. But those aren’t the only needs met by the state-of-the-art facility.

“It’s unique in that we had a strong focus on cultural envisioning,” says John Crittenden, a principal at Architects Alaska and design manager for the wellness center project.

Crittenden says the innovative new building focused on a marriage of sustainable design and traditional values, including a gathering space with a circular theme, a central oculus, an interior and exterior pole structure, and other features reminiscent of Alaska Native building design. Reclaimed wood from a former Kenai-area fish cannery is found throughout the wellness center, according to Architects Alaska.

The lumber—pulled from siding, sheathing, and floor decking of the former Libby, McNeil & Libby Cannery—holds a special meaning for the building’s owners. The old cannery had employed members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe for more than one hundred years, the architects say.

Today, that same cannery wood is built into the wellness center’s ceilings, wall panels, and trim, as well as the glass-railed staircase that curves up from the lobby. The reclaimed wood also lines the surfaces of a room intended for traditional healing: a way to exercise both material regeneration and cultural sustainability.

“The whole building itself is thought of as a vehicle for [the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s] cultural identity,” Crittenden says.

It’s not the only time his firm has combined architectural and medical innovation: Architects Alaska has also designed Greenhouse Senior Living projects—totaling more than two hundred resident rooms—in four locations around the state. The model promotes long-term wellness and sustainability by housing residents in smaller, ten to twelve person homes clustered around a larger support building with offices, physical therapy services, and a community gathering space, among other amenities.

“The cost for construction and operation of the Greenhouse projects compares with traditional long-term care facilities designs; however, the Greenhouse projects provide increased occupancy rates, improvements in patient health and engagement, no institutional feel, closer distances for patients to travel for activities, food, and support, and more individual attention to specific needs and concerns of the residents,’” says a spokesman for the architectural firm.

The Greenhouse facilities in Seward, Kodiak, Anchorage, and Kotzebue touch on themes of family and community for long-term health and sustainability, according to their designers.


Aquatic Health and Safety Center

When it comes to building in Alaska, innovation can mean combining both cultural and environmental sustainability—which, in many cases, means building around permafrost.

About a fifth of the earth’s land mass contains permafrost, and a sizeable portion of that frozen turf is found in Alaska, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Careless construction can result in thawing permafrost, uneven foundations, and “disastrous consequences.”

So, when Architects Alaska made plans for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Aquatic Health and Safety Center, they turned to a unique solution.

“One of its innovations is that it’s the first above-ground concrete pool tank,” Crittenden says. “That’s a pretty major technical development.”

The aquatic center was built with sustainability in mind; designed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver standards, a green building certification process administered by the nonprofit US Green Building Council. It employs a two-system water treatment process that combines sodium hypochlorite tablets and UV treatment. The system cuts back on chloramines, according to the design firm, and improves overall air quality. In the quest for environmental sustainability, the aquatic facility design also harnesses an abundant natural resource.

“Bethel has a good wind climate for turbines, so we incorporated a wind turbine in that project,” Crittenden says.

A 100 kilowatt turbine was installed by STG Incorporated in March 2014.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Aquatic Health and Safety Center is the architectural firm’s umpteenth pool design. It’s also Bethel’s first facility and the first in the state to be built with eight-inch-thick, reinforced, pneumatically placed concrete walls and a reinforced concrete floor slab in a building with a thermopile foundation system, according to Architects Alaska. While the usual stainless steel or aluminum pool tanks last fromt twenty to twenty-five years, the average lifespan for a concrete tank is somewhere around sixty years.

“We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to best adapt these facilities to the unique and varied environments of Alaska,” says David Moore, a principal at Architects Alaska and the design manager on the Bethel pool project.

The thermopiles used in the pool project are a decades-old technology subject to continual development and innovation.

Erwin Long, founder of Arctic Foundations Incorporated, or AFI, and 1978 Alaska Engineer of the Year, initially developed the Long Thermopile in 1956. The concept involves circulating fluids through the piles to keep the surrounding ground frozen, harnessing natural principles of heat transfer to enable construction on otherwise-unsteady ground.

Architects Alaska first utilized the technology at Galena Elementary School in the mid-1970s, according to the design firm, and expanded its application from there. In the 1980s it went on to use thermosyphone and thermoprobe principles at the cold-storage Jim River Maintenance Building.

Most recently, the firm applied AFI technology at a fabrication facility for Baker Hughes in Deadhorse and at the Deadhorse Aviation Center, projects led by Architects Alaska Principle Marvin Ungerecht.

While the Long Thermopile is more than fifty years old, it continues to pop up in new and surprising places—like a six-lane pool in Bethel.

“Even though some of it’s old technology, it’s an evolving technology,” Crittenden says.

Technology that continues to do its part to promote environmental sustainability, helping builders preserve permafrost and create long-lasting foundations in cold weather climates.


Kirsten Swann is an independent journalist based in Anchorage.


This first appeared in the February 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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