Housing for the Long Haul

ANATUVUK PASS, ALASKA — When word got around that the new prototype home built this summer in Anaktuvuk Pass would use just one hundred gallons of heating fuel a year, people there got excited. “Man, if I was to heat my house for that much, I would make a few other ends meet, like groceries,” said George Paneak, the village mayor.

Project developers now figure it might be 120 gallons a year (winter temperatures in the Brooks Range village can drop to fifty degrees below zero), but that’s still a small fraction of the thousand gallons or more that existing homes typically burn.

An oil-revenue-fed housing boom in the 1970s and ’80s brought modern housing to rural residents across Alaska. But the homes were built with little attention paid to lifestyle or energy use, and people in many communities now face a harsh predicament: existing homes are too expensive to heat and maintain, and new ones are too expensive to build.

Enter Jack Hébert and the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). Over the last year and a half, staff at the Fairbanks-based nonprofit have worked with village residents to design a home that meets local needs, takes advantage of local resources, and is relatively cheap to build and operate. Residents signed on because of the village’s acute housing needs; CCHRC staff saw building in the remote village, nestled in a windy valley one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, as a good challenge.

The final design blends traditional building techniques with modern materials. Like the traditional sod homes that inland Eskimos used for generations, the prototype home is built partially underground for protection from wind and cold and uses a chimneylike ventilation system. A staggered entryway helps keep cold air out. But the home also uses metal studs, soy-based spray insulation, and a spray-on plastic coating normally used for truck bed liners. “The old systems worked well,” Hébert says. “The old systems with good technology work extremely well.”

Thanks to a donation from the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, another nonprofit group, the home will be powered by the wind and sun. Refrigeration will come from the cold ground itself. The house is designed to fit on a single DC-6 cargo plane, and the goal is a three-week installation period. Ilisagvik College in Barrow is already training workers from surrounding villages to build the homes.

The house is expected to consume a small fraction of the heating fuel and electricity used in other homes, and it cost only $150,000 to build, shipping included. (Recent cost estimates for new construction in Anaktuvuk topped $750,000, according to CCHRC.)

With the first house barely finished, developers already have plans for more. The Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority, which is sponsoring the Anaktuvuk project, is seeking funding to build forty more homes in Anaktuvuk and other villages using the same methods. And CHRC is already working to design another home for the coastal village of Point Lay.

Hébert hopes the new designs — and more generally the new approach — will change how people think about building in rural and urban Alaska alike. “All of us live just a few generations away from living in a sustainable way,” he said.

Meanwhile, Anaktuvuk Pass residents are anxious to see just how efficient the new home is. “For now,” Paneak said, “people are pretty excited.” When workers installed the sod roof, village elders came out to make sure they did it right.