FAIRBANKS -- In 2004, researchers with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center were looking to build on the worst land they could find. At the base of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' hilly campus, on the site of an old riverbed, they found it: ground made from silt and fine sediments, laced with permafrost hovering near the edge of thawing.
This is the type of land that vexes builders in many parts of Alaska, with its potential to shift and destabilize as it thaws, making for difficult and costly construction projects.
But for the research center, it was perfect.
The nonprofit organization built its research facility at the site in 2006 with a mission to test emerging technologies on traditionally problematic land. Six years later, four homes were built on the unsteady ground. Those homes are known as the Sustainable Village, and today they house 16 university students.
Billed as a living laboratory by researchers, the village is a collaboration between the university and researchers. While the nonprofit designed and constructed the buildings, they are now owned by UAF.
CCHRC's focus is developing sustainable, energy-efficient technologies for circumpolar communities. The village is a place to pursue that mission, or as president Jack Hebert put it, "to set unrealistic goals and see how close we can come to them."
For the university's part, the village engages students in a sustainable lifestyle, what Hebert calls the "most important piece" of the project.
For the researchers, the hope is that the housing designs will shed light on what may -- or may not -- work in rural Alaska. Part of the agency's work is to create prototype homes in villages such as Quinhagak and Venetie, but testing the technologies is costly and difficult off the road system, designer and architect Aaron Cooke said.
"We can be a little bolder here because if there's a glitch we can just walk down the path and check it out," he said.
As researchers make small advances, huge challenges remain in promoting sustainable systems statewide, they said. With the state's gaping budget deficit, and a financial system that provides little incentive to invest in energy-efficient technology, they said the real hurdles lie more in economy than geography.
'Either way, you're successful'
The Sustainable Village is tucked away in spruce and birch woods, invisible to nearby roads. Between the serene, forested surroundings and the homes' modern interiors and technology, it's little surprise that they won the highest student-housing satisfaction ratings at UAF last year.
Each 1,600-square-foot home employs a different combination of heating, foundation and insulation systems. All four have the same volume of air to heat, which makes for "apples to apples" comparisons among the different technologies, Cooke said. The other variable is occupant behavior.
So far the results have been promising. By converting the technologies to their equivalent fuel oil No. 1 energy use, researchers found that the homes use an energy equivalent of roughly 400 gallons of heating oil each year -- half of what a standard, newly built home of the same size would use in Fairbanks, according to CCHRC spokesperson Molly Rettig.
Most important in this reduced energy use, researchers said, is the super-insulated design of each building.
As a case in point, one January, the primary heat stopped working in one of the buildings, wrote former resident adviser Ian Johnson.
"They were able to keep the building at 70 degrees while outdoor temperatures were -30 with just three small electric heaters. The residents shut the heaters off because the house was getting too hot," Johnson wrote.
The Birch House, which had the lowest energy use of all the homes in 2013 and 2014, sits on an experimental polyurethane foam raft foundation. The raft was devised by researchers to see whether it would prevent the unsteady permafrost beneath from thawing under the heat of the home. The hope is that the foam could become a less-expensive alternative to steel pilings.
So far, so good, Cooke said. The ground temperature still rests at 31.5 degrees, just below thawing, and hasn't changed since the homes were constructed three years ago. In case the temperatures do change, researchers devised another experimental system: tubing winds below the foundation, and if the permafrost ever gives sign of thawing, they'll pump cold air under the building. They don't know if it will work, but that's part of the process.
"In building science research, it's just as important to prove what doesn't work as what does work because that's what people want to know," Cooke said. "So either way, you're successful. It's sort of nice."
The Interior of the Birch House is bright and modern. Light bulbs are all LED or compact fluorescents, and the south-facing homes get plenty of natural light.
At the Birch House, the entire heating and ventilation system is crammed into a closet. "We were very unpopular with our mechanical team for the size," Cooke joked.
The house uses the agency-designed "Breathe" system (stylized brHEAThe), which combines both heating and ventilation. A diesel heater pumps warm air into the system after existing air has passed through a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) system.
That makes for both warm and fresh air.
"For generations the logic has been you had to choose one," Cooke said. With this system, there's the chance to have both.
That shift could potentially affect Alaskans' health. State epidemiologist Michael Cooper wrote that poor air quality is thought to be a contributing factor in respiratory illnesses, such as invasive pneumococcal disease.
The system is used in one other home in the sustainable village; the other two are heated by solar thermal panels and an oil or propane boiler.
Meanwhile, both water and septic systems -- major cost drivers for Arctic homes -- are off-the-grid to reduce costs. In two of the homes, the water is hauled in and housed in tanks inside the building; in the other two, water tanks sit outside in a container lined by 9 inches of spray foam. The question was, which way of storing water is most cost-effective, given that water must be heated before use?
"What ended up being true is that it was worth it to build the extra room in your house to put the water tank inside," Cooke said, at least in Fairbanks, where heating costs are high.
Then there's the septic system, an above-ground and self-contained "poop factory," as Cooke put it. The awkward black box with long tubing that spits out potable water after bacteria inside have done their work on human waste. The device uses about as much electricity as a pop-top freezer, Cooke said, and is used in each home.
Lastly, there are repurposed materials: the 100-year-old steel siding that now lines the bottom of the Birch House, taken from a dredge pipe that Cooke's friend found while stumbling around drunk on his land. The steel piling foundations on two of the homes are recycled from the North Slope.
A tough sell
Eventually, CCHRC wants to house 120 students in new energy-efficient homes.
But first, it hopes to construct a community center, which researchers envision as a space for community education and social functions. The design has been finished and construction approved, but now it's waiting on the money.
The economics of sustainable energy are the "real hurdle" in advancing these technologies, Rettig said.
When the price of oil plummeted, so did the state's budget. This year CCHRC lost half its funding -- from $1.5 million to $750,000, according to CCHRC president Hebert. "We would not survive any more cuts than this," he said.
Meanwhile UAF, CCHRC's financial partner in the village, must also now juggle budget considerations. Whether additional money will be funneled toward the community center remains to be seen.
Financial systems aren't set up to promote investment, Cooke said. Bank appraisals don't usually include criteria for sustainable energy, so financial institutions often won't provide additional loans for those investments. If people want these technologies, the investments need to come from their own pockets; that hinders the average person's ability to purchase technologies such as solar thermal power, which can take years to recoup investment costs. And while tools do exist to measure sustainable energy value, there's little incentive for an appraiser to become versed in a new system.
Meanwhile, companies also have little incentive to focus on building more affordable innovations in Arctic climates. "You're basically working a lot harder" to serve fewer people, Cooke said.
For his part, Hebert believes that Alaska is best poised to make such advances, given its "out-of-the-box, restless, crazy population."
"We can do this together. We can meet the challenges of the future for our grandchildren," he said.