Feb 28, 2010
By Alex DeMarban
The Tundra Drums
Published on February 15th, 2010
Reprinted with permission:
Houses in Quinhagak battered by decades of fierce wet winds might soon be replaced by a new model that hearkens back to traditional Native sod houses.
At a meeting last week, village leaders in the Southwest Alaska community accepted a preliminary plan for an energy-efficient home that could be a prototype for other houses in the village.
The octagonal floor plan, created by experts with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, stemmed from comments by the town’s mayor, Willard Church.
He suggested the center’s designers build a circular building, perhaps even a yurt, something similar to the soft-edged, partly underground dugouts the area’s Yup’ik elders once lived in.
The cornerless shape would shed gusts that have knocked the village’s blocky houses off their foundations. It would also reduce the snow drifts that pile against walls.
So the center’s design team unveiled an octagonal design, a not-quite-circular compromise designed to allow for strong walls that hold beefy insulation while still cutting the wind, said Aaron Cooke, with the research center.
Church likes the concept.
“I think it’s a good plan because it integrates both modern building technology and traditional design.”
The need for new housing in the village of 660 leaped into the spotlight last fall, following engineering reports that a sample-test of 55 houses built in the 1970s showed that many were “unsafe for occupancy” because of such problems as rotting beams and moldy walls.
Now, village leaders hope to replace those houses, and they’re looking for a relatively inexpensive model that outlasts the Bering Sea winds from the south and Arctic gusts from the north.
They’re also hoping it’s relatively cheap to heat.
“We want to have a house that lasts 30 years and uses less electricity and heat,” said Church. “There’s not many job opportunities out here, so if we can reduce the cost of heating fuel and use less electricity, that would go a long ways in helping folks out here.”
That’s where the research center comes in.
The village housing authority acquired money for the prototype and asked the center to design it, said Cooke.
Anatuvuk Pass model
The center hopes to follow the same pattern it used last year when building an energy-efficient home in the North Slope’s Anaktuvuk Pass, using local muscle and knowledge and producing a home for much less than the usual cost, said Cooke.
In the details, the house in Quinhagak could differ markedly from the one in Anaktuvuk Pass.
“Our M.O. is to make the house fit the place, so it will reflect the area’s unique environment and culture,” Cooke said.
It won’t be surrounded by an earthen berm, because flooding from the moist soil would be a problem, he said.
It likely won’t require as much insulation.
And there’ll be no garage where people can tinker on snowmachines. Costs need to stay low because so many homes must be built, he said.
In the Quinhagak prototype, a long arctic entryway will wrap around half the house, acting as a “shield” against rot from the soggy Bering Sea weather. The entryway will sit slightly lower than the living quarters, creating a natural cold trap for a storage area, another idea taken from traditional homes, said Cooke.
The three-bedroom, one-bath home, at 950-square-feet, will consist of a simple design to minimize materials and allow for construction in three weeks, keeping labor costs low, Cooke said.
Careful planning should prevent materials from being wasted and allow for a single barge shipment, another money saver.
“Our target is under $200,000,” said Jack Hebert. The cost would be about half the price of some recently built homes in the village.
Best of all, perhaps, each house will use only a fraction of the heat that’s normally consumed, slashing monthly bills that soar into the hundreds of dollars each winter, Cooke said.
The center will help train locals on how to build the prototype.
At the community meeting, residents refined the design, making slight changes, said Cooke.
Within weeks, he and others on the center’s design team will present a final plan. If the community approves, the next step will be planning and ordering the building materials and lining up a barge shipment, he said.
“We hope to build in July,” he said.