Oct 3, 2010
Energy-efficient home in Quinhagak off the ground
Published on October 1st, 2010
By ALEX DEMARBAN
Workers in a Southwest Alaska village are building a prototype house designed to shrug off painful heating costs and the wet winds that rot walls.
On Monday, builders with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks began teaching a crew of three in Quinhagak how to build the octagonal house, said Aaron Cooke, a center architect.
After it’s built, he’ll monitor the three-bedroom, 1-bath unit to determine its energy-efficiency, using sensors to assess everything from moisture content to heat loss.
Its heavily insulated walls and other features should “drastically” reduce heating bills — the top expense for many rural budgets — cutting them at least in half, he said.
And, thanks partly to minimal building materials, the center expects the house to go up for about half the price of the last home built in the village, Cooke said.
That’s a goal, he cautioned.
That last new house, which arrived off the barge with pre-built walls, cost $430,000, said Patrick Cleveland, head of the tribal government’s housing department.
Residents, many of whom live in houses that engineers say should be condemned, are excited and curious about the project, said Cleveland.
The lucky family will see a “big, tremendous” savings on their heating fuel bill, which now averages at least $4,500 annually per house, he said. Heating fuel is costly — $5.50 a gallon — and winters long.
So who’s moving in when the place is built in five weeks?
Cleveland doesn’t know yet — the tribal government hasn’t created guidelines for the selection — but plenty of families are ready to apply.
“Oh gosh, the waiting line will be at least a page long,” he said.
In 2009, a sample analysis of 55, 1970s-era houses found soft subfloors, rotten walls, crumbling entryways and unhealthy mold levels. The 10 sample homes were called “unsafe for occupancy,” said the center and PDC Engineering of Fairbanks in the review.
The community of 700 lies along the Bering Sea about 70 miles south of Bethel. Winter arrived on Thursday, when snow fell on the crew as they put in the foundation, said Cleveland. The three local hires will be crew chiefs in the future, because the village expects to build more of the energy-efficient homes.
The housing department invited the center, a nonprofit based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, to design the prototype. The village is paying for the work with a loan from the U.S. Agriculture Department, Cleveland said.
Innovative features, created with advice from villagers at design meetings, include an Arctic entryway that wraps part of the house to shield it from wet, southeast winds.
That wrap-around design, and its unusually long length, will keep that area and the house inside warmer compared to standard rural entryways that jut from the house, he said.
No windows will be built on the north side, reducing exposure to dry Arctic winds.
And because it’s octagonal, less of the house will be exposed to cold winds and snowdrifts that pile against the boxy collection of current houses.
During design meetings, villagers said they wanted an intimate family space for the 1,100-square foot home. They didn’t want hallways that would create cold spots in the house, said Cleveland.
As a result, the floorplan sort-of resembles a donut, with the living and dining room in the center and the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen occupying much of the outer ring.
The home includes a new concept Cooke said was invented by the center that allows walls to be thicker — and therefore more insulated — than is common in most houses.
Open-faced steel beams will replace the typical wooden wall studs and floor joists, a feature that reduces shipping costs because the steal beams nest together and save space.
Most of the house fits into the belly of a single DC-6, Cooke said. For example, the trusses for supporting the roof were built just small enough to fit through the plane’s cargo door.
“When shipping or freight is 30 percent of the entire cost of a house in the Bush, every inch and pound you can save matters,” Cooke said.
The center is playing an increasing role in rural Alaska in recent years. It’s been hired by tribal governments and housing authorities to produce energy-efficient designs, often with a traditional twist.
In Southwest, it’s helped the eroding village of Newtok design an emergency shelter with the steam baths preferred by elders for bathing.
Above the Arctic Circle in Anaktuvuk Pass, it’s worked with the village to build a prototype house partially covered by tundra for warmth, resembling old sod homes used by Alaska Natives.
On the North Slope in Atqasuk, the center trained villagers with the local housing authority to build a home that also comes with some earth insulation. They plan to take the center’s design and build more, Cooke said.
Reprinted with permission from The Tundra Drums
The homes that need replacing
Homes that were built in Quinhagak in the 1970s are not a practical solutuion for people living in cold climates. Interior heat and exterior moisture have, over the years, left people dwelling in rotting, mold infested homes that are expensive to heat and are not suited for the area they were built.
We are glad the Cold Climate Housing Research Center is pursuing a home building-model that will be both location-friendly and affordable.
The CCHRC home’s donut design, with the offset cold weather entry and central communal area, seems to take historically logical cold weather housing concepts and delivers a home that blends traditional design with modern comforts.
We hope the successful completion of this project will lead to similar home-building projects in Quinhagak and other remote villages where mold is a major health concern.