Energy-efficient prototype homes to be tested in villages

Designs target heating costs

April 22, 2010 

Two prototype homes, one designed for the state's wind-beaten coast and one for the Arctic, will be built in remote villages this summer as researchers look for low-cost answers to the housing crunch in rural Alaska.

In rainy Quinhagak, where a recent report found that dozens of 1970s-era houses may be rotting and potentially unsafe to live in, the village plans to build an easy-to-heat, eight-sided home meant to resemble traditional Yup'ik dwellings.

The three-bedroom house could cut energy bills by 50 percent and cost as little as $200,000 to build, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

A Fairbanks-based nonprofit, the research center designed both the test homes at the request of villages and housing authorities and with direction from village residents. The expected price for the Quinhagak home is roughly half the cost of other recent houses built in the Western Alaska village, the center says.

The potential savings are even greater in the North Slope, where building materials are shipped by plane and, in at least one village, a contractor estimated new three-bedroom homes would cost $1.1 million each, said Dan Shepherd, project manager for the regional housing authority.

Instead, the Cold Climate Housing Research Center has designed a prototype for the Arctic coast village of Point Lay on the Chukchi Sea with a target price tag of about $200,000, according to the Fairbanks researchers.

Two homes are planned for construction this year, Shepherd said. "Hopefully this could be a new trend and better way of building and we'll be able to put out more homes for the people in the villages."

The Point Lay design includes an 18-inch buffer of soy foam insulation that should allow the prototype home to sit directly on the ground without melting permafrost, said Judith Grunau, a project manager and designer for the research center.

Two of the walls are sloped inward at a 60-degree angle, mimicking the form of traditional sod homes and hampering snowdrifts from piling against the house, Grunau said.

A 2009 study of ranch-style homes in Quinhagak by the research center found entryways threatening to collapse and swollen walls soaked from the inside out. An engineering firm declared the homes "unfit for human occupancy."

John O. Mark, housing director for the Quinhagak tribal government, lives in one of the rotting houses.

"A bed post had fallen through the bedroom floor," he said.

The research center estimates the new octagonal prototype home will need as little as 150 gallons of heating oil a year. Existing homes can use up to five times that, the center says.

It'll be easier to heat because it's designed like a sod home -- no hallways, Mark said. "These rectangular shaped houses that we own now, the heating source will face into the hallway, but the heat has a hard time going into the rooms."

The shape exposes less of the exterior walls to the wind while the design allows for foam insulation to be sprayed from the inside for easier construction in wet weather, said Jack Hebert, president and CEO of the research center.

"There is really no components of this wall that can affected by water. The exterior is steel -- steel roofing material -- so it's very durable," he said.

It's not clear who will live in the test home yet, Mark said. The Bering Sea coast village is waiting for the first freight barge of the season to arrive, most likely in June, before construction can begin.

The research center will coordinate the construction, he said. "It will be a team effort where the locals will also be trained on how to build such prototypes."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $450,000 emergency grant to "stabilize" homes in Quinhagak last year at the request of Sen. Mark Begich. The village is in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, home to the greatest housing needs in the state, according to a February HUD report.

An additional 2,780 units are needed in the region, the report says.

If villagers like the housing research center's new Quinhagak home design, it could be used across the Delta, Hebert said.

The center's goals are to create affordable, energy-efficient home designs that village residents can build themselves, he said.

One such home has already been built.

A family moved into a prototype home based on an earlier design in Anaktuvuk Pass, a Brooks Range village of 280 people, at the beginning of the year, he said.

Using remote sensors the researchers monitor temperatures, wind speed and energy usage in the home from Fairbanks. They're tuning the ventilation system, Hebert said, but so far the family seems happy with the home.

"The only complaint we had earlier in the winter is that their little 2-year-old didn't know how cold it was outside, the house was so comfortable, so he headed out in his diaper," he said.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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