Quinhagak prototype home started!


Oct 3, 2010

Energy-efficient home in Quinhagak off the ground

Rendering of an energy efficient, cold climate home

Published on October 1st, 2010

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.


10 Responses to “Quinhagak prototype home started!”

  1. Man_from_Unk Says:

    This looks like a very good plan and I hope it works. It was a good idea to take a look at the pervailing wind directions for the bad weather seasons. I’ve seen homes unsafe to live in during the winter months up here in the Norton Sound – homes that were totally covered in snow storms requiring the habitants to be dug out the next day.

  2. elsie09 Says:

    I LOVE that little house.

    I’m enthralled with the special features adapted from the suggestions of the villagers themselves:

    * the “Arctic entryway that wraps part of the house to shield it from wet, southeast winds…and its unusually long length” that “will keep that area and the house inside warmer compared to standard rural entryways that jut from the house.”
    * “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.”
    * no hallways that waste square footage
    * uncommonly thicker walls, with more insulation
    * “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…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…”.
    * Heating costs are expected to drop significantly in this new, efficient type of housing.

    Housing is so critical to the needs of the rural families. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks continues to develop newer, better housing plans and then puts their findings into actual units in villages.

    I LOVE it!

  3. jim Says:

    I’m sorry, but my dad was an engineer (doctorate from Stanford), and I recall his embittered remarks about non-90-degree buildings, especially related to roofs.

    Then there are the walls– do you really want to have a house that doesn’t have square walls? Apple pie is good for pie, but I’m not sure about for rooms in dwellings. Why can’t we make rural rooms square? What’s the problem?

    Just look at the drawings– would you want your house to be like that? No square walls? Would you really want to modify your house to be like a pie?

    They could have done this with 90 degree angles… Don’t know why they didn’t. Why can’t they use 90 degree angles in rural Alaska? 90 degrees works (best). Pie doesn’t work better anywhere on the planet. Please don’t scramble brains– be square, go rectangular.

    Bad design.

    Octagonal? Really? Why is this better than 90 degree?

  4. alaskapi Says:

    The design was developed in concert with the people who would live in such a home and is considered to serve a variety of criteria for judgment in a positive manner.
    “Quinhagak House Prototype

    Similar to the soft edges of traditional dwellings in the region, The Quinhagak House is octagonal in plan. This design lessens the surface-to-volume ratio, which creates significantly more heated space and less surface area exposed to the cold than a rectangular model of the same area. Additionally, a laturaq, or Arctic Entry, is wrapped around the windward side of the house. The laturaq will create a bufferfrom powerful southeastwinds, keeping wind-driven moisture out of the walls and heat loss to a minimum. Protection from the wind is important in Quinhagak, where wind-driven moisture is one of the primary causes of failure in the existing housing stock.’

    We shall see if it does so.

    On a personal note, octagonal design has long fascinated me. Have not had the chance to find out if it would be comfortable to live in but it certainly has it’s uses. Many of our early lighthouses here were octagonal …
    And Russian Orthodox structures here have used the design…
    here’s an interesting look at noted octagonal structures…

  5. elsie09 Says:

    Part of my university experience was living in a round, high-rise dormitory, composed of two towers joined at the bottom with a common lobby. The students’ rooms were pie-shaped. I had absolutely NO trouble with my accommodations there. I thought I’d share a little about that:



    Seeing how the Quinhagak locals like their non-square design, it appears to me that the little house featured here works very well for their needs in the snow and the high winds as explained in the article.

    That’s just MY two cents. Your mileage may vary.

  6. elsie09 Says:

    One more thing, alaskapi — your enthusiasm for octagonal buildings brought to mind a special building I’ve toured in Fredericksburg, TX. This is an old Texas town settled back in the 1800s by German families. The citizens there built an eight-sided building known as the Vereins Kirche that was used for church services and public events.

    Here’s a snip from http://www.traveltex.com/things-to-do/attractions/vereins-kirche-museum

    Vereins Kirche Museum
    Reconstructed “coffee mill church,” eight-sided structure was first public building in city, serving as house of worship for all denominations, school and meeting hall. Now holds archives and rotating displays of photographs and archaeological items.

    And, you can find a bit more with some neat old photos at http://pioneermuseum.net/vereins-kirche.htm

    I find it interesting, in spite of the differences and great distances between the old Alaska Natives and the early German settlers in Texas, they shared similar beliefs about architectural variety.

  7. jim Says:

    We’ll see how it works, but the more complicated the roof, the more trouble you can have. I’ve been involved in a building project which was a combination of construction and renovation. An existing roof, that wasn’t that old, required 5 million dollars of repairs, so perhaps I’m biased (about roof maintenance and repairs). Roofs can cause a heap of hurt and everything below them can get messed up with water. The more complicated the roof, the more complicated the maintenance may be in the future. These octagonal roofs are full of non square angles, and rather than having one or two ridges, they’ve got 8 ridges. At least it looks like it they’re not going to use gutters– that would get complicated.

    If I was involved in the design meetings, I’d be asking the architects and engineers for more details on the advantage of this design. We’d talk for quite a while before I would be convinced that the advantages outweigh (what I personally think are) the disadvantages; especially maintenance 10 or 20 years down the line. One of the issues, although it is not an especially big deal, is that some materials will be wasted when they cut odd shaped pieces from rectangular in the floors, ceiling, and roof. I think some folks will get tired of some of the rooms. The pantry looks awkward for storage, and some of the corners will be difficult to vacuum or sweep.

    I hope I’m wrong and that this design will work extremely well for the people who use it.

  8. ugavic Says:

    Unless I am missing something this home design came after a process involving the villagers, many of whom I am sure are/have been involved in building and maintaining their homes, their needs, location, weather and a host of other things.

    Jim…I have to believe the issues you have brought up have been vetted, as they are common concerns. My spouse, also a engineer, was impressed with the designed and felt some of the things it addressed were of great importance and most often missed with designs for our rural and northern climates. He deals almost daily with buildings that used the ‘traditional’ methods and designs that cause all sorts of issues. IF these prototypes prove to work in our villages let’s hope some of the other construction projects, like schools and health clinics will learn from them!!

    When I visit the Cold Climate Housing Research Center a couple of years ago I was VERY impressed with the level of research that went into all their projects, the habit of doing prototypes, and providing information that addressed VERY practical needs.

    Something needs to change in Alaska and with our rural housing situation. It does not meet the needs of the families, villages or agencies providing it.

    There HAS TO BE cheaper, easier, longer term solutions and I am thrilled that the Center is involved with the villages all over Alaska to help move things forward.

  9. jim Says:

    I guess the bottom line is we will see how it works. Besides, I’m not the client.

    Just speaking for myself, and coming from my peanut gallery here, there are numerous things that I wonder about. The ‘master’ bedroom looks cramped and after you put the queen bed in (or is that a twin in the drawing?), other furniture placement looks difficult to me, especially if you want to move two people around in that space. Looks like you’d need bunk beds in the other rooms if you need to sleep more than four people in the house. Much of the plumbing seems to be near exterior walls (my 2001 built Anchorage 4-star energy house has burst a frozen water pipe twice because the pipe is too close to an exterior wall, despite the modern construction, thicker walls, building code compliant construction, modern design, better weatherization etc.).

    Much of the storage is near exterior walls and I wonder if canned goods will freeze. In rural Alaska people must store much more food since many items are delivered only annually. The pantry has got to be less efficient for storage than it could be (especially for larger boxes).

    I hope that budgets for unique designs like this will have money left over for FFE (furniture, fixtures, and equipment)– the design would benefit a lot if furniture was specifically designed to fit the unique room spaces. I’d try to design furniture that could fit seamlessly into the uniquely angled environments. This would improve uses of the spaces a lot.

    I assume folks here don’t mind if I express reservations about this design– besides, who cares what I think? I’m just me. I hope it works out well, and that design and construction have evolved a lot over the decades– I think a similar design could have been a disaster 25 years ago (in Fairbanks there has been a octagonal house on Farmer’s Loop Road that has been gradually rotting to oblivion for about 30 years), but perhaps now (with newer construction technologies) it will work out better and I just need to modernize my attitude and perspective and become an optimist.

    As far as vetting goes, I’ve been involved for about 8 years in a relatively large capital project, and not everything gets vetted despite tremendous work, foresight, and dedication.

    If this design is a prototype, I’m pretty sure there will be revisions.

  10. jim Says:

    I was thinking about it more, and I need to be careful separating past from present– perhaps today they can build a durable and serviceable octagonal structure– but they sure have messed these things up in the past, and the pioneering original occupant families may have suffered miserably as a consequence of those premature historic designs. Some families have even lost their American Dreams (their homes).

    But I should not have called this new evolved contemporary design a ‘bad design’– I don’t know– perhaps it is a good design within our contemporary times and technology, hard as it is from personal past experience for me to swallow.

    I wish the best to the new homeowners. I hope these houses will serve them well.

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