Energy Efficiency at -30 Degrees Fahrenheit

A rendering of the earth berm home proposed for Anaktuvuk PassAcross the arctic and subarctic, many native tribes still occupy their traditional lands — but most do so in decidedly non-traditional ways. Western products of every description have been adopted by northern peoples, but one of the products that is least suited to the northern climate has also become one of the most widespread: wood frame housing.

All of the materials necessary to build a wood frame house must be shipped into subarctic regions. Once built, a house in the far north must be able to withstand frequent high winds, and be extremely well insulted. Often, the fuel necessary to heat the home must also be shipped in. With fuel costs spiraling ever upward, the worsening of an already severe housing shortage is causing subarctic communities to explore alternative housing forms.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), based in Fairbanks, Alaska, is “dedicated to research that improves the durability, health, and affordability of shelter for people living in circumpolar regions around the globe.”

One of their most notable current projects is a prototype home being designed for Anaktuvuk Pass, located in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Scientists at the CCHRC are working with the Nunamiut Inupiat community, who reside at the Pass, to develop a housing style that will fit a northern community’s specific needs, while being sustainable and economical to build.

The Nunamiut traditionally built sod dwellings, and now their housing type is inspiring a modern alternative. The roof and sides of the prototype house will be earth-bermed. New homes will be oriented to maximize passive solar energy and ventilation, as well as to provide wind and snowdrift protection. Water recycling and treatment methods will be implemented. The CCHRC will also investigate the possibility of installing solar and wind power generators.  

The new housing alternative is expected to offer:

  • building systems that are easily adopted by local builders
  • compact materials that are easy to ship en masse
  • the use of soil (a building material that is readily available) and local labor to control costs, and
  • a total cost (including shipping costs) of $100,000 for an 800 sq. ft. home

The project will combine traditional design with some cutting edge technologies. For example, the prototype home will showcase the first-known building application of a spray-on, waterproof material called MaxGuard that is currently used in truck bed and tank liners. MaxGuard can be shipped as a liquid, dramatically reducing shipping costs.

Currently the Anaktuvuk prototype home is in the modeling stage. A full scale model will be tested in Fairbanks, and it is hoped that at least 2 homes will be built in Anaktuvuk by next summer. The project is a pilot program that may eventually be adopted in other villages.

As Jack Hebert, president of the CCHRC, told, “If you can build a sustainable community in Anaktuvuk, you can build a sustainable community anywhere in the world.”

Image Credit: CCHRC

For more on green building in Alaska, see:

Green Building Efforts in Alaska on Green Building Elements


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