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Hauling Sled Homes to Point Lay

by Feb 12, 2024Magazine, Transportation

Scott Bailie

Point Lay has a housing problem. The community is home to around 350 people, says Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority (TNHA) board member Sophie Tracey, but the community only has about seventy-five homes. In many homes, two or even three generations are living under one roof.

It’s one of the most densely populated communities in the state, says Griffin Hagle-Forster, CEO of TNHA, one of fourteen regional housing authorities in Alaska. TNHA operates as a consortium for six villages in the North Slope region, receiving federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding to build houses for the communities it serves.

“Point Lay is, of the communities we serve, by far the most overcrowded. The definition [of overcrowded, by HUD] is one person or more per room. Severely overcrowded is 1.5 persons per room. In Point Lay, about three out of four houses there are overcrowded, with most of those considered severely overcrowded,” Hagle-Forster says.

Using a combination of grants, COVID-19 relief funding, and assistance from the Denali Commission to clear asbestos from three existing structures, TNHA is building three duplexes in the community, providing new houses for six families.

Funding is relatively simple, though, compared to the challenge of transporting construction materials all the way to the Chukchi Sea coast, about 200 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik.

“Timing was a big factor in our decision to use that mode of logistics… Once we were ready, we really wanted to keep the prospect of a 2023 construction season alive.”

—Griffin Hagle-Forster, CEO, Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

Rush Delivery

That’s where logistics company Lynden stepped in. In addition to moving cargo for oil and gas projects on the North Slope, Lynden Business Development Manager Roger Wilson says the crew spent about eight days last winter traveling 990 miles round trip from Deadhorse hauling housing materials to Point Lay.

Lynden Transport trucked the materials from Anchorage to Deadhorse, then Lynden Oilfield Services’ PistenBully Snowcats towed the materials to Point Lay.

Three PistenBully Snowcats hauled materials and equipment across the tundra last April for the Point Lay housing project.

Scott Bailie

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It’s not a shipping mode TNHA uses frequently, Hagle-Forster says. Shipping anything to Point Lay is expensive, at between $1 and $3 per pound of freight on average.

But overland was the right choice in this instance because it allowed the materials to get to Point Lay in March, sooner than waiting for a summer barge to arrive. Although the project had been in the works for about five years, Hagle-Forster says several steps—such as environmental reviews, access and ownership issues, and other tasks—had to be ironed out before ordering materials. All the while, the clock was ticking on the COVID-19 relief funding set to be used for the project.

Hauling construction materials and equipment by PistenBully Snowcat allowed the Point Lay housing project to stay on schedule.

Scott Bailie

“Timing was a big factor in our decision to use that mode of logistics,” Hagle-Forster says. “Once we were ready, we really wanted to keep the prospect of a 2023 construction season alive.”

Moving the materials any other way might have saved money, but it would have delayed the start of construction until August, which is late in the season for the northern community.

“These projects are clear examples of how challenging logistics in the Arctic can be… No one else on the planet can do this type of work in the North Slope region.”

—Paul Friese, Vice President, Alaska Sales, Lynden Transport

Heavy Load Over the Tundra

The nearly Iditarod-length traverse over the tundra followed winter-access trails the North Slope Borough maintains, Hagle-Forster says. A dogsled team could have easily outpaced them; they traveled about twelve miles per hour.

“I hope the drivers got some good podcasts downloaded,” Hagle-Forster says with a laugh.

Some of the freight was difficult to get to the building site in other ways: septic tanks and foundation beams longer than 50 feet are a cumbersome load. But towed behind the PistenBully, size was not an issue.

Point Lay resident Teri Ferreira secures electrical cable to the interior framing of one of the new homes under construction in the village.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

“These projects are clear examples of how challenging logistics in the Arctic can be,” says Paul Friese, Lynden Transport vice president of Alaska sales. “No one else on the planet can do this type of work in the North Slope region. Lynden’s combination of relationships and leveraging our specialized equipment to do this work creates a unique One Lynden experience for our customers.”

With the spring arrival of the materials, Hagle-Forster says TNHA’s crew and contractors were able to complete site remediation—which included asbestos removal, funded by the Denali Commission—and level the ground with fill. One duplex shell is complete, and construction has taken off, with occupancy expected in late 2024.

From Former School to Apartments

In the North Slope Borough, which has been home to the Iñupiat for more than 10,000 years, Point Lay is a relatively new village. It first appeared on the 1880 US Census and then on the 1890 census, but it did not appear again until 1940. The community has moved throughout the years, once because of seasonal flooding at the mouth of the nearby Kokolik River. The community’s location today dates to 1974, when it moved to a site near the US Air Force Distant Early Warning station.

The original North Slope Borough School District school was built after that move with funding from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Over time the school deteriorated, and the new Kali School, bearing the Iñupiaq name for the village (which means “mound”) was built. The original school building and the teacher housing behind it were condemned.

Point Lay resident Sonny Henry and TNHA plumber Jim Ladd work together to route indoor utilities.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

By the mid-2010s, families desperate for housing moved in. Hallways were cut off, and classrooms became apartments. There was no water and sewer, as those utilities had been shut off after the ground shifted from permafrost subsidence and caused leaks. According to a 2017 Point Lay Comprehensive Plan, residents at the school relied on water delivery and honeybuckets. In a community about 230 miles north of the Arctic Circle, known for windy, snowy conditions, the closed school was not habitable and barely qualified as a shelter.

“These buildings are not safe for habitation, yet there are few other options,” the comprehensive plan states.

“In one apartment with a family of five, you could see outside. The roof was disconnected from the walls. It was really bad conditions,” Tracey says.

Waiting List for Houses

Tracey says Point Lay is a young village, and it’s growing. The school until recently had fewer than 100 students, but now it has surpassed that number.

“Every year, more mothers are having children; we’re only growing,” she says.

For some families, having three generations under one roof is just too much. Even substandard housing, such as the former school, becomes a consideration.

Construction progress on the first duplex prior to installation of the roof panels in July 2023.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

Hagle-Forster says twenty-seven people were living in the former school buildings. Those residents were moved, some into a borough-owned eight-plex built in 2022. But the maximum number of people allowed per unit in that complex is four, Tracey says, so two families who had more than four members—one was a family of eight—had to move elsewhere.

Tracey says the new housing, with three bedrooms, won’t be restricted to families of four. But it’s not guaranteed that the displaced residents of the former school will be living in the new duplexes. Point Lay residents who are on a waitlist for housing will be contacted first, Hagle-Forster says.

Structural insulated panels manufactured by Alaska Insulated Panels in Wasilla are installed on the roof by TNHA carpenters Chad Eddy and Ron Arnold in August 2023.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

Applicants must meet income qualifications and agree to a twenty-five-year lease-to-own agreement. If they complete the program successfully, keeping the duplex in good repair and maintaining it as a primary residence, not a rental, the residents receive title to the unit at that point, Hagle-Forster says.

Tracey hopes that Cully Corporation, the Alaska Native village corporation for Point Lay, can assist residents in getting more houses built.

“Out of hundreds of people, that’s going to help six families; it’s not going to make a dent in what we need,” Tracey says. “I do hope in the near future is that our corporation can work with the community so we can get more housing; we have one of the highest homelessness rates, period—people wishing they could have their own housing, instead of having to move from one family to another just to have a bed to sleep in.”

“Point Lay is a very costly place to build in; it’s a lot of money for affordable homes; these are good-quality homes, but not luxury homes by any stretch. Some of the cost is in engineering an adaptive foundation that is versatile for that environment; we think of it as an insurance measure.”

—Griffin Hagle-Forster, CEO, Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

Cold-Climate Duplexes with a Twist

The duplexes are fairly standard three-bedroom, one-bath, one-story units, Hagle-Forster says. TNHA, working with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center at UAF, has come up with a design that works well in the North Slope region: units with a large cold storage space and an Arctic entry, with water pipes routed in the interior of the home, as close to the water heater as possible. The homes are well insulated, using panels with eight-inch poly-foam cores, eliminating heat loss that happens with wood stud framing. Hydronic boilers provide baseboard radiant heating with a Toyo stove backup, and heat recovery ventilators allow fresh air in after it has been warmed while also discharging stale air.

“We try to keep it really simple. One of the factors we have to think about is, these homes are 500 miles from the nearest Home Depot,” Hagle-Forster says. “We specifically select these mechanical systems for reliability above all.”

The twist, Hagle-Forster says, is beneath the floor. The foundation can be adjusted, so if permafrost degrades one corner of the lot, the home can be jacked up in that area and adjusted to keep it level. And instead of pilings extending into the ground, they’re on a large sled, so if the community relocates, the structures will be easier to move.

Point Lay rests on permafrost that’s becoming less permanent every year due to climate change. To plan ahead for potential relocation, the village received $5 million in 2022 from the federal government.

Subsidence of ice-rich permafrost has seriously degraded existing infrastructure in Point Lay, including many residential foundations. TNHA’s new homes are built with adjustable steel foundations that also permit the relocation of the whole home if necessary.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

Most homes in Point Lay are built on pilings, generally extending between 16 to 25 feet below the soil. The pilings allow for seasonal fluctuations in ground level. But the fluctuation has largely been downward—the permafrost is melting. In some places, Tracey says, the bottoms of the pilings are exposed.

“In 2008 or 2009, when you went under my house, you could jump as high as you can and barely touch the bottom [of the house],” Tracey says.

About five years ago, she and her husband used some low-grade gravel to fill up the area under their house, filling it to the point that “you had to duck to get under,” Tracey says. Now, the ground beneath her home has subsided to the point that you have to jump high to reach the floor of the home again.

Along the Coast

TNHA CEO Griffin Hagle-Forster sits atop a stack of old pilings following demolition of three condemned ‘70s-era structures in May 2023. Kali School is in the background.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

The total housing project costs $5.5 million, Hagle-Forster says. That’s a lot for three duplexes in Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, but the expense of shipping the materials in adds considerable cost. The unique foundation is costly too, he says, but it has become a necessity.

“Point Lay is a very costly place to build in; it’s a lot of money for affordable homes; these are good-quality homes, but not luxury homes by any stretch. Some of the cost is in engineering an adaptive foundation that is versatile for that environment; we think of it as an insurance measure,” Hagle-Forster says. “We have to build like the future depends on it because it does.”

Hagle-Forster says TNHA will build five more units in 2024 from one side of the Arctic Ocean coast to the other: a duplex in Kaktovik, a duplex in Nuiqsut, and a single-family house in Wainwright. The structures will be similar to those built in Point Lay, on adjustable and movable foundations. Instead of hauling on sleds, though, Hagle-Forster says for these three projects the Alaska Air National Guard will help transport the materials on a cargo plane as part of an Innovative Readiness Training program mission.

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In This Issue
The 2024 Corporate 100
April 2024

In their company kitchens, the Corporate 100 blend wholesome ingredients with exquisite utensils to create the scrumptious ambrosia that keeps employees gratified and contented. Meet the top Alaska employers ranked by number of Alaskans on their payroll, and learn the recipe for success. This issue also includes a focus on economic development initiatives in Anchorage and Kodiak.

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