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New 'super-insulated' homes rising across Alaska's North Slope

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  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 3, 2015

For Alaska homeowners, plumbing "freeze-up" is a recurring fear, maybe even more so for those living on Alaska's frigid North Slope.

But the housing authority in Barrow has figured out one way to prevent that problem: building super-insulated homes in villages in the region.

Daryl Kooley, executive director for the Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority, said the houses' protections against freeze-up -- when indoor plumbing freezes and bursts -- got their first test in Anaktuvuk Pass in 2010. The residents of a super-insulated home left for a week. While they were gone, the home ran out of heating fuel, Kooley said. When they returned, the inside of the house was still 65 degrees. The temperature outside: around 30 below zero.

Preventing freeze-up is one of many things the Barrow-based housing authority has worked to develop in the efficiency homes it has been building since 2008. As of last summer, it has completed seven of 24 planned super-insulated homes in North Slope communities. The homes are considered the first "6-star" -- the highest possible energy efficiency rating -- in the North Slope region.

The homes, with features developed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, are designed to use less than 150 gallons of heating oil a year. For people living in typical homes that can burn upward of 850 gallons of heating fuel a year, that can mean a savings of about 85 percent.

For Taylor Aiken, 30, who lives in one of the homes in Atqasuk, that means spending only $200 to $300 a year on heating oil.

"It's easier to stay on top of (bills)," he said.

He said beyond the cost savings, the two-bedroom house gave him a chance to finally move out of his grandparents' home. He said in summer the house stays cool thanks to the efficient ventilation system and windows.

Self-contained homes

The homes have their own sewage treatment systems. Kooley said that can reduce the cost of connecting to North Slope Borough utilities.

The homes are also built on "skiddable" foundations that allow them to be easily moved or adjusted as the permafrost they rest on shifts.

Kooley said most communities on the North Slope do not have easy access to gravel, which is commonly used in home foundation construction. The skiddable foundations do not require it, an added benefit since gravel absorbs heat and melts permafrost, leading to more foundation troubles.

The homes also use solar power to heat water in summer. Despite the long hours of darkness in winter, when electric water heaters are used, the annual cost to heat water turns out to be "almost nothing," Kooley said.

Kooley said the homes are expected to last about 40 years. That's about double the average life expectancy of a traditional home in the region, he said.

"A lot of homes (in the region) can look pretty rough after 25 years," Kooley said.

According to the Barrow housing authority, the average cost for a home in the region is $409,000. The average cost to build a new home on the North Slope (with its high shipping costs) is about $600,000.

The homes have come a long way from their early designs, according to Kooley. The first home was intended to be similar to a traditional underground Inupiat sod home, but now they look more like traditional American homes.

Jack Hebert, CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, said the first super-insulated home the center built is a good, efficient structure. But design practicality outweighed the cultural aesthetic, he said. It is difficult to build a home that lets residents feel like they're living in a sod house.

"We're really looking for shelter; that's the real point," Hebert said.

TNHA's model is a good example of what's possible, Hebert said. Similar houses are being built in other parts of the state, including Bethel in Western Alaska and Buckland in the Northwest Arctic Borough, with local adaptations of Cold Climate Housing's designs.

"Maybe more conventional housing is the way we're going," Hebert said. "But that conventional form needs to be affordable, it needs to be energy-efficient, and it needs good air."

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