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An obsession with building warm houses in rural Alaska's frigid climate

  • Author: Ned Rozell
    | Alaska science
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 23, 2013

BETHEL, Alaska -- Outside the Fly By Café, ravens are flying backwards. At least they appear to be, as a powerful wind suspends them in time and space. A brewing ground blizzard in this Southwest Alaska hub is making it difficult for Jack Hébert to get to Atmautluak, a village of fewer than 300 people here on the flats of the Kuskokwim River Delta.

Hébert, president and founder of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, is traveling to Atmautluak because members of the village's tribal council called him for advice. Villagers want to both build their own homes while setting up a construction company.

Hébert, along with Aaron Cooke, an architectural designer with the center, want to partner with the people of Atmautluak, just as they've assisted others in places like Anaktuvuk Pass, Quinhagak, Crooked Creek and Point Lay. In Anaktuvuk, center staffers helped design and build low-cost, fuel-sipping, semi-subterranean houses that mesh with the country and the locals' lifestyles.

Working with Alaska Natives on sustainable building projects makes up a small percentage of the work Hébert and Cooke do for the center, but traveling to villages and meeting with residents are some of their favorite tasks.

Waiting on the wind

On this day, so stormy that school has been cancelled in Atmautluak, about 15 miles of open tundra away, a TV set in the café blasts an episode of "Friends" as other delayed travelers eat grilled sandwiches and sip coffee. Outside the window, small aircraft rock like babies, saved from blowing away by nylon straps tethering their wings to the ground.

Awaiting word on the status of the flight to Atmautluak, Hébert uses a pen to mark up a report about a retrofit for a multi-apartment building in another village. On his computer, Cooke has a few images of building styles that might work for Atmautluak. He sits at his own table and revises it.

Hébert and Cooke have traveled to Atmautluak before. During summer, they stayed for three days, sleeping in a loft with cardboard padding beneath their sleeping bags. "We spent most of the time listening to what they wanted," Cooke says.

"We asked them, 'What would you like to change about your houses?'" Hébert says. "We don't want to do it for them. We try to give these guys ownership of their projects."

An enjoyable challenge for Hébert, Cooke and others in the research center is to work around the limitations of an Alaska village. In the case of Atmautluak, these include the cost of importing building materials by barge or plane ("Forty percent of their building costs are freight," Cooke says). The village is also on wet ground with permafrost beneath, and there's no local source of gravel to pile up for building platforms.

After thinking about an executive summary he needs to write on the building report for the other village, Hébert takes a break to answer questions about the evolution of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, located in Fairbanks just south of the university campus.

Obsession with northern housing

Sustainable housing has been on Hébert's mind for a long time, at least since he lived in the western Brooks Range on a remote homestead parcel. In the mid-1970s, when he was 23, the carpenter and Denali Park ranger spent four winters in a 12-by-16-foot cabin hand-built with sod and logs. In one of the coldest, most remote places in Alaska, he honed his sense of appreciation for shelters and developed homespun innovations like window shutters made of caribou skins.

Later, as the owner of Taiga Woodcraft, he designed and built homes from the ground up in Interior Alaska. All the while, he wondered what houses designed for Seattle were doing in Alaska villages, and why there was so little research outside Canada on northern building techniques and materials. Over the years, this curiosity became an obsession, he says.

In the late 1990s, Hébert gathered a group of Alaska builders and established a nonprofit center in which people could study housing techniques and materials in cold climates like ours. He became president and CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center at the same time he was building homes. He still has the passion to design and build, he says, but his company has not created a new home in three years.

That's because he's been in places like the Fly By Café. With the wind continuing to add bite to the minus-10-degrees air, Hébert and Cooke's afternoon flight to Atmautluak seems unlikely. Finally, the call comes from the regional air carrier that the flight to Atmautluak is cancelled. Hébert and Cooke chat for a few seconds and decide that Cooke will stay overnight in Bethel and try to reach Atmautluak again tomorrow.

"That's why I added the 'cushion days' to my itinerary," says Cooke, a seasoned Bush traveler.

Hébert has no cushion, having a commitment to speak at a meeting in Anchorage the next day with regional leaders from Southwest Alaska and Sen. Lisa Murkowski. He does have time for a Bethel dinner, though, and takes a taxi with Cooke to a Korean restaurant. After their meals, they shake hands and duck from the wind into separate taxis. Hébert heads for the airport again.

Hébert catches the last Alaska Airlines jet back to Anchorage, where he drives a rental car to the Hotel Captain Cook. On the ground floor of the hotel, he will give a presentation on the Cold Climate Housing Research Center the next day.

At about 11 p.m., in his room in the east tower of the Captain Cook, Hébert pulls out his smartphone. "I have 62 email messages," he says. After responding to a few, he gets between the sheets. He laughs.

"I was expecting to sleep on a piece of cardboard tonight," he says.

Then, after a day that began in subzero Fairbanks, continued in the gnawing wind of Southwest Alaska, and ends in the relative comfort of Alaska's largest city, Hébert reaches over and turns off a bedside table lamp. Within a few minutes, he is asleep.

Ned Rozell is a science writer with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.

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