Think "Arctic Circle" and probably you think white. Snow. Polar bears. Winters that never end.

But in Anaktuvuk Pass, a small village nestled in Alaska's Brooks Range just a short walk from the Continental Divide, the Tagiugmiullu Nunamiulli Housing Authority is thinking green.

Specifically, in collaboration with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and with help from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center Demilec USA, the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, Lifewater Engineering and, last but not least, students from Illisagvik College, the Authority has just built the very first "green" house north of the Arctic Circle. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center is a non-profit organization founded by the Alaska State Home Building Association and based at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

In a village of mostly wood frame homes, the new house sticks out. Thanks to its Demelec covering, you'd swear it's adobe like you'd find in Santa Fe or Tucson. That's what catches the eye.

But what catches the imagination are the "why's" and "how's' of building green in Alaska. "Green," it turns out, is just another word for "smart" - very smart - north of the Arctic Circle.

The "development of northern Alaska in the 1980's," The Fairbanks News-Miner recently reported, "...came modern, Western buildings from the Lower 48." The wood frame houses "were supposed to improve living conditions" in the villages. "Poorly insulated, poorly ventilated and incorrectly to the sun and wind," they didn't. "Within less than a generation," said Center president Jack Hebert, "in our desire to help we've basically created a tremendous problem."

Though characterized by the Center's Ty Keltner as "an experimental design," the new house at Anaktuvuk Pass may become the model for homebuilding in the Arctic. No surprise, of course, that it boasts an array of energy-saving innovations. Soy-foam insulation with an R-60 rating. A photovoltaic array to collect and store solar energy. Even a wind turbine.

But maybe the most important innovation is also the oldest. When the area was first settled in the 1950's, said The News-Miner, the Inupiat Nunamiut built underground, sod houses, "using earth as a natural insulator." The new house has a sod roof. Two of its four sides are covered in soil. What made for snug fits in the 20th century still works in the 21st.

And building "green" begets green of another shade. North of the Circle, it costs about $1 million to build a typical, Lower 48 house, especially because of the cost of importing building materials. The Center expects its "green" house will come in for under $150,000 - and that include shipping costs. The typical home in the area also uses 1,400 gallons of heating oil a year. The new house will use just 110 gallons.

Simply put, said Hebert, "we're using good science and modern technology to make something that reflects the past but is even better."


Content Archived: August 15, 2011