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Designs for Aleutian homes: winning entry won't be built.


An international home-design contest aimed at stimulating affordable, energy-efficient building in the inhospitable climes of Atka Island drew an elegant winning entry from a young team of Spanish architects. But, in a difficult decision for the Aleutian Housing Authority, that body has abandoned plans to build the design that won the Living Aleutian Home Design Competition earlier this year.

Instead, the Authority plans to build a different home with a design not suggested by any contest participants--an octagon--and not on Atka but in the community of Sand Point.

The decision allows the Authority to meet its original contest goals without compromising the competition's stiff standards on cost and efficiency, says AHA's executive director, Dan Duame.

"I just can't let the idea of the competition dictate my result," Duame said at the end of July. "My original objectives were to find a highly performing building at the lowest possible cost that's replicable throughout the region. If the facts lead me to something else, that's where I need to go."

The Living Aleutian Home Design Competition--hosted by the Aleutian Housing Authority and the Portland, Ore. International Living Future Institute--challenged participants to design an energy-efficient yet affordable home on Atka, a windswept spot in the central Aleutian Islands deluged by 60 inches of precipitation a year--an inch for each person who lives there.

The Living Aleutian competition asked entrants to design rigorously efficient, cost-effective and easily replicated homes. The design needed to meet "netzero" standards for energy and water by creating as much of both as it consumed. And it couldn't cost more than $400,000, the average price for the modular units currently built on the island.

In May, to fanfare in the cold-climate housing community and in their home country, the competition announced the winner: a trio of young architects from the Taller Abierto studio in Madrid, Spain's sophisticated capital city of 3 million.

The winning project, "Finnesko 13," was a sloping three-bedroom, one bath home with a strip of windows and an aerodynamic design meant to channel the wind. The home was to be powered by wind turbines and geothermal heat rising from the volcanic ground.

The Madrid studio won the $35,000 first prize. And, in a fairly unusual opportunity for architects not accustomed to seeing designs become real, Taller Abierto also won the chance to turn their winning design into a home for 32-year-old Jimmy Prokopeuff, a fish processing plant manager raised on the island. Construction was expected to begin this fall.

But by July, it became clear that Finnesko 13 couldn't be built as designed and still meet the standards of the Living Aleutian competition.


Deciding Factors

The decision to not build from the winning design came at the end of July, Duame says.

The Authority, with ILFI, promoted the contest to find innovative ideas for weaning the Aleutians off fossil fuels like diesel. The Authority is the designated housing entity for 10 communities in the Aleutian and Pribilof region, including Atka. AHA owns, manages and operates 258 housing units throughout the region.

Duame met with Fairbanks cold-climate housing expert Thorsten Chlupp and kpb architect Lauri Strauss in Fairbanks on July 24. They determined that the winning design just couldn't be built for $400,000 given the kind of construction necessary to meet the relevant building and efficiency standards.

First, the trio found they couldn't make the Finnesko 13 design buildable without compromising its integrity. Its curved ribs allowed any built structures to be flexible--longer or shorter, depending on the number of ribs used. That fit the competition's goal of being easily replicated. But curves are expensive to construct, and the trio struggled to get wall thicknesses and other details to meet performance criteria, Duame says.

Second, sealing the home as designed with a slope from front to back proved technically challenging when it came to window placement and keeping out the elements. That's key in a place as rainy and windy as the Aleutians.

"We were ending up with straighter walls, with more square corners than round corners," he says.

The design also proved difficult to site in different spots and still gain the passive energy advantages integral to the contest, such as wind power.

An octogon, on the other hand, can be rotated and manipulated on any given site, Duame says. "So you're almost always getting the maximum solar gain from three sides, morning, afternoon, and evening."

An octagon home was designed and built in Quinhagak--a Yupik community north of the Aleutians with a similar wet, windy climate--by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, with input from the community. The shape maximizes heating efficiency and deflects wind-driven rain, says Jack Hebert, president and CEO of the Fairbanks-based CCHRC.

Overwhelming Entries

The Living Aleutian contest drew 104 design entries from 21 countries around the world, according to April Knudsen, ILFI's competition manager. Nearly half came from the United States; five designs came from firms based in Alaska.

The sheer number of entries didn't allow the contest's volunteer panel of judges adequate time to give each a detailed analysis, Duame said. "Our ability to look at each project at the level we did yesterday (on July 24) was just not feasible," he says. "I still like the (winning) design, it's a very elegant look. I wish we could do it."

A panel of six judges determined the winners: Sebastian Eckmann, builder at Nordic Constructors; Bryan Mackay-Lyons, principal at Mackay-Lyons Sweetappie Architects; Jason McLennan, architect and CEO at International Living Future Institute; and Hebert, Duame and Strauss, who is an Alaska architect.

The judges weighed each design's concept and creativity, as well as its self-sustaining qualities, says Hebert. They kept coming back to two different forms of architecture: the earth-sheltering design of the traditional Aleut sodhouse, the barabara and the Quonset hut, which he calls "a tremendously practical structure."

The winning entry stood apart because of its form and the way Taller Abierto came up with a home built from pieces that could be pre-built and set up on site, he says.

But it wasn't head and shoulders above the rest.

"It wasn't one Mick Jagger, the rest local garage bands," Hebert says. "There was a lot of talent and creativity, as well as a lot of naivete about building in cold climates."



The Winner-On Paper at Least

The Taller Abierto team--Julio Rodriguez Pareja, Nacho Roman Santiago and Daniel Martinez Diaz--knew they had a good thing as soon as they submitted their proposal to the Living Aleutian Design Competition earlier this year.

The trio toasted their own work that day in Madrid--and then again at the awards ceremony in May in Portland, Ore. The studio normally focuses on housing projects, so the competition excited the team from the very beginning, Santiago wrote in an email before the decision was made to scrap the building phase.

"It dealt with a (really attractive) architectural issue," he said. "There was an actual need to solve both a construction and a social problem, building a home in a geographical area that was always very interesting to us."

Taller Abierto couldn't be reached again before this issue went to press.

The $35,000 first prize wasn't wasted, Duame said, given the incredible range of ideas that came out of the contest.

He does plan to make use of a Diamond Pier footing foundation suggested by the second-place winner. The second-place design came from two Seattle men still completing advanced degrees in architecture at the University of Washington when they submitted their idea.

"House for a Windy Island," by Jesse Belknap and Joseph Swain, represents a simple design that's easy to build, Belknap said. The two architects felt that the remoteness of Atka Island was a bigger factor than the weather. The Seattle men received a $15,000 prize.

Two teams tied for third place. "Universal Serial House"--basically a Quonset hut on stilts--was designed by 2SIS Arquitectes Girona of girona, Spain. Eco Architecture DesignWorks, a firm based in upstate New York, designed "Orca House" around an easily constructed kit concept. Another Madrid team, 24 Studio, earned an honorable mention.

The Next Step

Like other rural communities in Alaska, residents of the Aleutians pay exorbitant fuel costs for heat and power generated by imported diesel. The need for an alternative energy source fueled the 2010 Aleutian Pribilof Island Energy Summit, where more than 50 participants generated a goal that Aleutian communities reduce fossil fuel use by 85 percent.

Duame and Strauss came up with the home design contest, says Mark Masteller, a former Alaska-based ILFI staffer and longtime energy efficient building advocate.

The remarkable number of entries the contest received can be chalked up to good publicity. There's no doubt the competition and ensuing media coverage stimulated a far-reaching conversation about the possibility of net-zero energy and low-cost efficient home construction for rural Alaska, Masteller said before the decision was made to move on from the winning design.

"There's a huge need for replicability since demand for affordable housing in rural Alaska is high," he says. "And of course fossil energy costs continue to increase, which also drives change."

The Authority next will travel to Sand Point--a roughly 1,000-person community that serves as the seat of East Aleutians Borough, located near the opening of the Bering Sea--and meet with the community to discuss plans for the first of three homes Duame hopes to build as part of the contest's original mission. It proved too complicated to build a home in Atka as planned for the first home, given the logistics of building in such a remote spot this late in the season. Duame says he still hopes to build homes in Atka, as well as King Cove.

He says it's also possible the Authority could build a design submitted for the Living Aleutians competition as part of an entirely separate process. And the contest could still provide guidance to the home to be built in Sand Point.

"We're kind of going back now and scouring all of the entries to see what might be applicable to the design we're looking at," Duame says.

Zaz Hollander is a journalist living in Palmer.
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Comment:Designs for Aleutian homes: winning entry won't be built.(ARCHITECTURE & ENGINEERING)
Author:Hollander, Zaz
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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