Indigenous Building Techniques

Oct 1, 2014 | Alaska Native, Arctic, Construction, Energy, Environmental, Science

Will Swagel

Atmautluak prototype house built with easily shipped materials, without using any heavy equipment, and with local workers, shown framing the house with pre-made integrated walls and trusses.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CCHRC

Cold Climate Housing Research Center goals—efficiency and sustainability

Alaska has the toughest winter weather in the United States; and Fairbanks “enjoys” one of the more unforgiving climates in the state. Temperatures there can drop below minus fifty degrees in winter and soar above one hundred degrees in the summer. For home builders, Fairbanks provides an excellent place to test the efficiency of housing designs and building techniques in an exceptionally rigorous climate. And that’s just what they do at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), located in Alaska’s second-biggest city.

CCHRC was the brainchild of a group of members of the Alaska State Home Building Association who recognized that Alaska needed building techniques that matched the realities of life in the state.

“CCHRC was an idea that was shared among several of us in the building industry that we really needed to do research in Alaska and not just borrow technologies from Canada and the Lower 48,” says Jack Hébert, CCHRC’s president, CEO, and founding chairman. CCHRC receives strong support from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and from Alaska Native Corporations and regional nonprofits.

Now fifteen years old, CCHRC staffers work on a dizzyingly wide range of projects—testing home designs, building materials, construction methods, and heating and ventilation systems. Along with research in Fairbanks, CCHRC conducts projects across Alaska, from North Slope villages to the rain-soaked towns of the Panhandle.

Training a local workforce is a key factor in the sustainability of CCHRC’s work; here they are setting the sills on an adjustable foundation so the buildings can be leveled in the shifting soils.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CCHRC

Sustainable Northern Communities

Hébert spent his early years wintering in the mountains of northwestern Arctic Alaska and his summers in the “old” Denali Park. His mentors were Alaska Natives and Alaskan pioneers, people with deep connections to the land. Hébert has spent nearly forty years building homes in Interior Alaska, through his companies Taiga Woodcraft and Hébert Homes LLC, and still does. Even though he runs a research center, he describes himself as “someone who is happiest with the tool belt on.”

In 2008, CCHRC began a program that merged the two sides of Hébert’s life. The Sustainable Northern Communities program was charged with working to provide affordable, energy-efficient, healthy, and economically sustainable housing for both rural and urban Alaska. Since then, CCHRC has helped more than twenty Alaska villages combine traditional knowledge with twenty-first century techniques and technologies to design and build homes for residents.

In the southwest Alaska village of Atmautluak, for example, CCHRC worked with community members to design and build two prototype houses. Homeowners in the Yup’ik community of 277 are challenged by wet, unstable soils and high energy costs. Prior to building, CCHRC staffers consulted with village residents to include local knowledge in their planning. CCHRC states that “partnerships with local people are the key to the program’s success.”

Hébert says that the local knowledge “can be as varied as the knowledge of the change in climate and wind direction that people are observing in the area or the kinds of soils that appear to be more stable to seasonal flooding in their region. By doing enough [scientific] research, you might be able to find these out.

“But by listening to people,” he says, “you can learn much more quickly.”

The Atmautluak homes used pre-manufactured integrated trusses to make erecting the frame easier, needing only a small work crew and no heavy equipment. Each home has an adjustable foundation built on steel pilings to allow residents to keep the house level despite shifting soils. Honey buckets have been replaced with state-of-the-art waterless toilets. The building is super-insulated and equipped with a heat-recovery ventilation system to control humidity and air quality. CCHRC’s research sets the average energy use for a home in this region at about 1,000 gallons of heating fuel annually. The prototype houses use only 150 to 200 gallons per year.

A short video on the Atmautluak project can be seen at CCHRC.org, the Center’s newly re-vamped website.

Workers installing coiling for the ground source heat pump (inset), which is installed in a CCHRC building in Fairbanks. Since last summer, it has been heating a part of the facility.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CCHRC

A few other of CCHRC’s many projects:

  • Designing energy efficient homes in Galena to replace those damaged and destroyed by flood. This is part of a larger collaboration with FEMA and the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to design simple-to-construct permanent emergency replacement housing that can be erected by local people or volunteers, use little energy, and are healthy for occupants.
  • Working with the Association of Village Council Presidents to build two duplexes to house flight school students in Bethel. This could lead to a manufacturing plant in Bethel, making building components, such as integrated trusses, for homes to be assembled by local workers in Kuskokwim River villages. A supply network for building materials could be another part of the plan. “You start to create synergy in a region, where the activities that are needed for the housing industry all stay in that region,” Hébert says.
  • Working with the Tagiugiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority to design homes in six North Slope villages with innovative foundation systems for the permafrost conditions in the high Arctic that are also extremely energy efficient.

Hébert stresses that sustainability includes economic questions as well as building issues. Simply put, CCHRC seeks to build and maintain homes using local materials, when possible, and to train a local workforce in order to keep economic activity in the village. This trained crew can then be called upon to construct or retrofit other energy efficient homes in the village or region.

“Housing, nationwide, is one of the biggest engines of employment,” Hébert says. “We want to keep as much money [in the village] as possible.”

CCHRC’s President, CEO, and Founding Chairman Jack Hébert (center) is with two local workers at a project in Buckland.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CCHRC

Cold Climate Sweet Home

At CCHRC’s five-acre campus, built and designed by CCHRC on leased land from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, staffers approach building energy-efficient homes from many directions. CCHRC’s research facility (LEED Platinum) is considered to be the most energy efficient building of its kind in the Circumpolar North. It’s easy to think of insulating a house, but what is the best way to do it? If too much warm air has direct contact with cold air, condensation and mildew are threats. Sealing all leaks in windows and walls saves heat, but the quality of the inside air can suffer. Heat leaking from a building can melt the permafrost beneath and cause the foundation to fail.

Much of the work done at CCHRC involves testing different kinds of wall and floor designs. Hébert says one foundation design being tested involves the use of a foam “raft.” Home designs minimize heat loss to local winds and maximize solar gain.

“Like any science or technology, building science is evolving and maturing,” Hébert says.

Technological advances in mechanical systems are offering all sorts of new potential. Super insulated homes require a mechanical system to keep air fresh and of the right humidity. Newer units recover much of the heat from air being exhausted.

Heat pumps are offering all sorts of new possibilities for home efficiency. Working like refrigerators in reverse, heat pumps use refrigerants in coils to pull heat from the outside air, ground, or water. These pumps can work with air or ground temperatures near freezing.

CCHRC is studying a variety of heat pump configurations, says Research Engineer Robbin Garber-Slaght. Right now, there are about fifty ground source heat pumps being used in the Fairbanks area, many by tapping into moving underground water. In the more moderate climes of Southeast Alaska, CCHRC is studying air source heat pumps that pull enough warmth from “cold” outside air to fully heat a home.

Ground source heat pump systems are expensive—$20,000 and up for a home—says Garber-Slaght, but tax subsidies are available that can shave off about a third of the cost, and fuel savings can pay much of the rest of the cost over time. More versatile drilling techniques being perfected are also expected to significantly lower the cost of placing the transfer coils into the ground.

With several towns in Southeast Alaska reaching the generating capacity of their power plants, CCHRC is studying the efficiency of air source heat pumps installed in Alaska to help inform utility managers so they can decide on matters of capital investments or further subsidies to customers.

Workers install a raft foundation at the University of Alaska Sustainable Village. It is designed to keep heat from the house melting the permafrost beneath.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CCHRC

Efficiency First

Even without the use of heat pumps, the savings in CCHRC’s prototype houses has been considerable. A home in Anaktuvuk Pass uses 240 gallons of fuel per winter, instead of 1,000 gallons. A home in Quinhagak uses 180 gallons instead of more than 800.

“Our belief is that the low-hanging fruit and the easiest to pick is energy efficiency,” Hébert says. “The higher your energy costs, the more of a driver it is. Then look at renewable sources of energy which are available all over the state—wind, sun, in-stream hydro, or biomass. And then look at fossil fuels and see how you can reduce their use. When you get a four-bedroom home down to 150 gallons of fuel oil a year, your footprint is pretty darn light.

“We’re trying to get buildings, and homes in particular, to the point where they literally produce as much energy as they use,” he concludes. “The pieces and parts of those technologies are developing and maturing. We believe that even in Alaska’s harsh climate, we can demonstrate that that is possible.”

ALASKAN AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST WILL SWAGEL WRITES FROM SITKA.

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

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