Alaska Grown Architecture

Mar 26, 2018 | Alaska Native, Architecture, Construction, Healthcare

Tom Anderson

Patient housing for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage.

Architectural trade critical to keeping unique Alaska-style alive

The field of architecture has been an integral part of the Alaska design and construction industry for decades. The innovation of architectural and drawing craftspeople is memorialized across the state thanks to the determination of artisans who value their trade and product and who are critical to the Alaska economy and building trades.

A room at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium patient housing, which received an IIDA Healthcare Award.
Credit: Kevin Smith Photography

The American Institute of Architects Alaska Chapter

The number of architects in Alaska may not be skyrocketing, but the profession is respected and the need for qualified professionals in the trade remains strong statewide. For high school or college students seeking a profession that keeps them busy and employed, architecture is an excellent option.

Melissa Morse is an architect with Architects Alaska and the 2018 president for The American Institute of Architects Alaska Chapter. Morse says the organization’s 2018

membership is at 202 professionals and climbing. The majority of members are architects who are licensed and live in Alaska.

“Architects are part of every public building and multi-family housing project in the state, from man camps to churches, schools to hospitals,” says Morse. She stresses the importance of her profession to the economy, citing the necessity for architectural firms in Alaska to be comprehensive, mobile, and resilient, with multiple specialties.

Especially since Alaska’s climate is a definite variable in design calculations. A building-type in Nome is very different than in Juneau. “We are forced to rethink the building envelope for each location and specific microclimate, which other states may not require as often,” Morse adds. “In addition to the exterior of the building there are often vernacular or historic building types that need to be considered, so we have our work cut out for us statewide.”

Alaska architects research the locations of their projects to determine how climate and geology will affect the build and to ensure the facility suits the site and community. “The high winds, drastic temperature range, seismic activity, and varied landscape are inspirational to each project, creating a unique building that represents its location,” she says. “Architecture firms typically hire the engineer team; working with the engineers we are able to craft a building that is contoured to the owner and community needs.”

Morse estimates there are approximately thirty architecture offices around the state, and another thirty sole proprietors. Collectively, the AIA Alaska Chapter represents the entire building design industry. In terms of process, she says architects work with clients, engineers, and contractors to build designs.

“Our industry is smaller in numbers than other places because Alaska has a low population, so it’s relative. The majority of architecture offices are small businesses with less than fifteen employees, but fortunately they’re also sophisticated in focus and niches so they can cover variables like region, soil, temperature, and structural design,” says Morse. “Clients ultimately value Alaskan architect acumen and experience as a result.”

KPB Architects

Jeff Koonce is a founding member of KPB Architects. The KPB website says Koonce has “played a key role in Alaska’s urban and rural architecture scene over the past thirty-three years.”

“The architecture industry in Alaska is as diverse as our state,” says Koonce. As the economy rises and falls in relation to oil and gas prices and resource development opportunities, the architectural community responds accordingly.

Over the past few years some firms have seen a decrease in staffing needs or closed while other start-ups are burgeoning in niche markets. “Although our economy has slowed throughout the past few years, building permits are holding steady. This is a great economic indicator for our profession in Alaska.”

Second generation owner and firm President Mike Prozeralik believes one of the big challenges faced by architects in Alaska is growing and sustaining a firm. “The talent pool here is very limited. We do not have a university system Architecture program, so the graduates we talk to are either young professionals that grew up here, or they’re from out of state and seeking opportunity for a design career, often with an affinity for the outdoors and nature. Recruiting is a challenge, so retaining the talent you have is essential to your longevity,” he says. KPB is located in downtown Anchorage and is comprised of eight registered architects, four emerging professionals, one landscape architect, interior designers, and administrative support staff.

Prozeralik adds that the cost of living in Anchorage is 30 percent higher than the national average. “This expense makes it difficult for Alaskan architectural firms to compete for talent with firms in the Lower 48,” he says, emphasizing salaries and benefits need to be competitive with local competition and national firms. “Relocating an architect and their family is also a difficult and expensive process, so finding the right individual that will come, and plans to stay, is always a managerial concern.”

As for 2018 projects, “We are very optimistic that there will be more opportunities for our industry and our firm,” says Koonce. Over the past couple of years, a major healthcare provider retained the firm for existing and new facility developments, and under a term contract with the US Army Corps of Engineers, KPB is one of the design teams assisting with the development of facilities supporting the new F-35 mission at Eielson Air Force Base. KPB is also currently involved in the development of several new medical clinics, a large multi-family housing project in downtown Anchorage, and a rural project for building reuse in Kodiak. They’re assisting with a salmon roe plant in Emmonak and discussing other projects along Alaska’s western coast.

“We’re working hard to develop our backlog for 2018. I’m happy with our progress and ready to take on more projects as the state’s economy gains momentum,” says Koonce.

Alder Architecture & Design

Anna M. Lee is a licensed architect in the Mat-Su Borough and sole proprietor of Alder Architecture & Design.

Lee has been an architect for more than twenty-three years, launching her career after graduating from Montana State University and designing in Montana. She was recruited through contacts in the profession to work for a well-established architectural firm, and did so for eight years in Wasilla. But as the recent economy waned and purse strings tightened, she found herself laid off and seeking employment. She decided to stay in the Valley and open her own architecture practice.

Anna Lee, sole proprietor of Alder Architecture & Design, weathers -23 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures in Kenai.
Credit: Alder Architecture & Design

“One aspect of my occupation and industry I’m proud of is being the only female-owned architecture firm in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough,” says Lee, though there are a few large firms with satellite offices in the Valley. Lee’s expertise is in rural developments, custom rustic Alaska homes, historical preservation, and residential remodels.

“I’ve worked on projects across Alaska in remote communities ranging from Dutch Harbor and Atka to Bethel and Nome,” she says. “Experience counts in this trade. I’ve also worked on many older historic buildings in Montana. While large Alaskan architecture firms target new construction, I’m often tasked with smaller jobs like remodels that require my expertise with aged structures that might contain plaster or asbestos materials and other older construction techniques. I enjoy researching the history of buildings and the material science that goes into them.”

Lee’s 2018 current contract season includes a new toilet facility remodel in a 1940s-building owned and occupied by the Mat-Su Borough, a custom Alaska flare residence, residential remodels, a restaurant re-build, teacher housing designs in several villages, and a marijuana grow facility. “The general public does not always understand exactly what it is an architect does. We do more than just draw. Sometimes we also contract for construction administration for an owner and/or contractor.”

Lee says the Alaska building economy is dependent on new and expanding industries. “Mat-Su is thriving in commerce and residential diversity, so as far as architecture goes, I am in the right place at the right time, doing exactly what I am passionate about: architecture and Alaska.”

Coastwise Corporation

Architecture isn’t just for buildings or landscape. Coastwise Corporation is the first and only naval architecture/marine engineering firm based in Alaska. Coastwise has served the Alaska maritime industry for more than twenty years, providing professional vessel design, marine structure and systems engineering, port engineering, and waterborne transportation analysis.

Alaska’s short operating season and challenging weather require vessel designs to be highly reliable, says Coastwise Corporation Principal Patrick Eberhardt. “It is challenging for our designers to work in Alaska with inclement weather conditions like high winds, cold temperatures, and icy or near-icy areas, but we get the job done,” he says.

Eberhardt adds that traditionally naval architecture/marine engineering work has been contracted to large firms outside of Alaska, primarily in Seattle. “Our primary challenge is to change the mindset in the vessel design world that Alaskan companies think that they need to go out of state for professional marine engineering and design services. They don’t; we’re here and capable.”

In 2018 Coastwise will continue its work on passenger vessel design and construction projects with Allen Marine in Sitka and Bay Weld Boats in Homer. The company is also planning for design and construction of a new tug for a Western Alaska construction company. Eberhardt says the company offers 3D design and finite element analysis to develop innovative, functional, and efficient designs.

Eberhardt notes that Coastwise designed the eighty-nine-foot fishing trawler Evie Grace, the first new trawler design built for Kodiak in recent memory that will begin its first season in 2018. It is unique because it is the first vessel designed pursuant to new federal fishing vessel legislation. “Coastwise is at the forefront of developing new naval architecture regulations with the [US Coast Guard] and developing the practical application of this new rule set,” he says.

Klauder & Company Architects

A respected architect on the Kenai Peninsula, Peter Klauder founded Klauder & Company Architects in 1994. Klauder’s experience in the constructions trades, including carpentry and landscaping, has added to his proficiency as an architect. Klauder is one of only several architects on the Kenai Peninsula.

Klauder says Alaskan architects typically face a combination of unique environmental factors. An Alaska project might need to accommodate Earthquake Seismic Zone 4, the highest rated for ground movement; ground frost and permafrost issues in Arctic climes; and wind loads easily exceeding 100 miles per hour. “It’s not that other states don’t have one or two of these same environmental conditions,” says Klauder, “but dealing with all three conditions on the same work site is somewhat unique to Alaska.”

Absent a formal university degree program in the state, it’s difficult to find draftsman and intern architects, he says. As a result, over the years Klauder has trained several very talented employees that had limited exposure to architectural schooling.

There are advantages to working in Alaska. Alaskans are a “little bit more down to earth,” he says. Klauder recalls as a young man accompanying his father to a design meeting at an architectural firm in Ohio. His father was a general contractor and they were working on the design for a high-end custom home. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity: “The architects were all dressed up in their long sleeve suits and ties, and as we left the meeting I told my dad I’d never want to be an architect because the dress code was way too restrictive.” Now that he is president of Klauder & Company Architects performance is his priority—not dress code. “If I wore a suit and tie to work I don’t think my clients would trust me, and that’s just fine with me.”

Klauder notes that when oil prices dropped in the state, the local economy took a hit, so he adjusted his business model accordingly. “While the economy is still shaky, our 2018 projects look solid. We are bidding on an exciting project for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe that will carry well into 2018 and possibly beyond,” he says. “We hope to go back to work for one of the oil companies in 2018, overseeing master planning and then designing a major facility for them. We have several smaller private projects that are keeping us busy including one medical/surgical facility. We do a lot of private commercial projects and some public projects, splitting our hours about 50/50. Alaska has been very good to me,” he says.

The Skilling residence in Girdwood is a Z Architects project.
Credit: Ed Faith Photography

Z Architects

One might be hard-pressed to find a prettier workplace than at the foot of Alyeska Resort, which is where Architect Marco Zaccaro and his design colleagues focus on Alaska’s unique northern landscape.

Zaccaro predicts 2018 to be a growth period for architecture, despite the relatively small industry in Alaska. Over his career he’s found that small and large out-of-state firms that bid on projects in Alaska are often surprised

by the number of firms in Anchorage. “Because of the relatively small size of the construction market, most firms in Alaska are generalists. In other states with larger markets, firms tend to specialize in one industry like healthcare and medical centers, schools, or fire stations. Alaskan firms will often partner with these out-of-state specialists in putting proposals together for local projects,” he says.

​Zaccaro says architects depend heavily on government agencies, Alaska Native Corporations, and the oil and gas industry. “The architectural selection process for these entities tends to be bureaucratic, so most medium-sized and larger architecture firms in Alaska spend a lot of time putting proposals together and have relatively large marketing departments. This drives up architectural fees to cover project procurement costs. Smaller firms also face this burden as they attempt to grow,” he adds.

Because Alaska is relatively new, Zaccaro believes there is a fairly blank slate to create a distinct architectural language. “Alaska’s progressive design evolution over the last decade has led to some really great work, while the resulting talent is starting to give Alaskan design its own identity and national recognition.”Alaskan architects are often experts and specialize in dealing with the long distances and complicated supply chains that often affect Alaska construction logistics. “Our geographic considerations, along with higher constructions costs, play an important role in design decisions that architects in other states don’t suffer,” he adds.

Z Architects provided services for the Bears Phase III project at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center included a bear viewing canopy and restroom facility.
Credit: Z Architects/Blue Iris Photography

Z Architects provided services to Alyeska Resort for the Gunmount 2 Rehabilitation project that included avalanche howitzer storage. Howtizers are used to trigger small avalanches in order to avoid large, unexpected ones.
Credit: Z Architects/Blue Iris Photography

Home Grown Future

The future appears bright and bold for the architecture industry in Alaska.

“Our clients are what make our firm successful,” says Koonce. “Alaskans are down-to-earth, humble, and open to working collaboratively. We have a diverse demographic and are culturally rich in terms of architecture and clientele. The best news is there’s more than enough room for new and aspiring architects in our state. Construction and building are vital processes, while safe and reliable structures are the foundation of our communities. Architects are the people who help make sure everything fits and works—and we all thrive as a result. It’s a profession I’m proud of in Alaska, and one from which I wouldn’t change for the world.”

Tom Anderson owns a public relations firm in Alaska and is a freelance writer

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