Prototype house with traditional twist might replace rotting Quinhagak homes


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.


7 Responses to “Prototype house with traditional twist might replace rotting Quinhagak homes”

  1. alaskapi Says:

    We have watched as folks Outside develop housing specific to climate and locality. The projects I’ve seen are mostly desert specific.

    This is so exciting!
    I hope this project moves forward with all due speed and can barely wait to see how the design shakes out in real life.
    Have to wait… know I have to wait… not very good at waiting…

  2. benlomond2 Says:

    Good to see they incorporated tradiional design…traditional structures tend to evolve over time to work effeciently for their specific climates….

  3. emilypeacock Says:

    This is very sensible and exciting. My friends who live in Tennessee have a solar home built into the side of a hill. It’s an amazing and comfortable building as well as environmentally and economically friendly. We need to work harder to be in harmony with Nature as opposed to opposing Her.

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    How exciting! Its going to be a busy summer. I’m looking forward to pictures of the “new” village.

  5. anonymousbloggers Says:

    Not long ago I read about the lack of money needed to replace schools in rural Alaska:

    “But the backlog is huge. Hoffman and Rep. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the Republican majority, referenced a list of projects waiting for money from the School Construction Grant Fund. The top 10 alone carry a price tag of $332 million, and they’re the ones with the most dire needs. The full list of 35 projects tops $411.6 million.”

    Perhaps some of the concepts being used in the prototype home could be used to design modular school buildings more suited to the climate than conventional school buildings.

    This will be interesting to watch.

  6. Kath the Scrappy Says:

    Wonderful, Win Win Situation on so MANY counts. Pulling it together so that local labor can get the work, the summer months can allow for construction (not waiting for another decade of discussions).

    This is truly exciting & promising! I will be watching for further updates.

  7. neperry Says:

    There’s a Octagonal universe on line: Some of the stone schools built by the Quakers are still amazing-they were built out of a leveling impulse: No head of class here. Octagonal houses were popular at the end of the 1800’s; they were cheaper to heat with no cold corners.

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