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Thinking outside the box: architectural design in Alaska is difficult, requiring much research and education.

In the 49th state, Mother Nature commands respect. Alaska is one-fifth the land area of the United States. It has the coldest climate in the nation, with permafrost underlying 80 percent of the land, and ice sometimes thousands of feet thick. Add to that frequent seismic activity, more than 70 potentially active volcanoes, extreme temperature fluctuations (100 degrees in summer and minus 80 degrees in winter in the Interior region) and a rainforest area that can have as much as 150 inches of rain in a year, and it can safely be claimed that designing a sustainable building in Alaska is an architect's challenge.

From selecting foundation types and orienting windows to materials availability and energy efficiency, considerations are many and daunting. When designing buildings in Alaska, architects must understand the challenges and the solutions as well as the opportunities.

"There is a northern design course required in Alaska that has to be taken in order to be licensed to practice architecture," explained Angie Barr, architect with Kumin Associates in Anchorage. "The Northern Design course at the University of Alaska is a one-semester, three-credit course. It uses a textbook with chapters by different architects, such as Jon Kumin (1947 to 2005) and other Alaska-based architects.

"With regard to cold-weather design, Barr believes that "for the most part, all firms are fairly familiar with all these issues. Although, certainly, there are some firms that have never worked in the Bush or on the North Slope. In our office, we generally work in teams with a partner in charge. Over time we tend to have certain areas of expertise."

Barr grew up in Kansas and relocated to Alaska in 1981. She is Kumin Associates' secretary/treasurer/shareholder. Among her many architectural projects is a fuel stage depot in the Antarctica that she helped to design.

"It is a state-of-the-art facility," said Barr. "A storage facility at the South Pole Station, storage for all the fuel that runs that Station. For the Antarctic project, we developed a boat concept in which 'nested boats' of tapered sizes transported giant fuel storage tanks that had been flown in to the area. The tanks were moved in these 'boats' from the planes to the facility."

Thinking like this, outside the box, is exactly what builder Jack Hebert loves to do and has been doing since starting his career.

"I've been a licensed designer and builder for 30 years," said Hebert, owner of Hebert Homes/Taiga Woodcraft, and winner of the first State of Alaska Governor's Award for Excellence in Energy Efficient Design. Hebert is one of the founders of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRCH) in Fairbanks and is its president and CEO. Hebert believes he shares a vision with other builders regarding the 'development, use and testing of energy-efficient, durable, healthy, and cost-effective building techniques.

"These concepts are not only for Alaska, but for other cold-climate regions as well," Hebert said. "I came to Alaska in 1973 to go climbing. It is obviously a spectacular place aesthetically. And the diversity of the environment is reflected in the people and the homes here."

The CCHRC is an industry-based, nonprofit organization organized to develop energy efficient, durable, cost-effective and healthy technologies to be used in building in cold-climate regions here and around the world. The CCHRC conducts applied research on houses and other buildings to test for product performance and whole building performance.

In addition to weather, Hebert sees the CCHRC expanding its concerns and research to include earthquakes, and other natural disasters, as well as manmade climate changes and the problems they cause in the design and construction of houses and buildings.

"In regard to the process of climate change, our faculty is dealing with this issue: such as the question of the permafrost melting. If there is thawing, then buildings and houses have to be designed and built to adjust to the thaw, for example, adjustable foundations.

"Sustainability is also a consideration and the CCHRC is investigating the possibility of using biomass to produce heat and electricity. We are working very closely with the electric utility cooperative to investigate Green Power sources. We are looking forward to the possibility of 20 percent of our power generation from renewable energy sources by 2018."

And don't forget geothermal energy sources," Hebert adds. "Alaska has some of the biggest geothermal energy possibilities in the country."

Hebert is referring to the fact that the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, part of the Ring of Fire, are part of one of the major volcanic areas in the world.

With two offices, the main one in Fairbanks and a second in Anchorage, Charles Bettisworth and Co. has had to solve all sorts of design challenges over the 25 years of the firms' existence.

"There's a lot to worry about when designing in a climate like this. For the subarctic (Fairbanks) there is vapor penetration into the thermal envelope. It is important to make certain that you have a vapor barrier. The quality of the vapor barrier is similarly important. Without it, ice can be created which, in the spring, can melt. We've seen conditions where this has happened."

A large company, with 23 employees in the two offices, Bettisworth & Co. has a variety of work, mostly industrial, military, educational, and governmental. Another important consideration is HRV, heat-recovery ventilation. Since opening windows is not an option for much of the year, Bettisworth & Co. utilizes a heat recovery system to ensure a fresh air supply. The system pulls in fresh outside air, warms it with exhaust air using a heat exchange process and then circulates it through the building.

"We also strive to save energy by making the most use of the period of time between May 1 to Aug. 1 when it is not very dark at night. We also orient the glass on the building so that it faces south because it is important for the occupants of offices to have a connection with the outside. It is crucial when designing a building, to take a look at the material. In winter there are only three hours of sunlight and three hours of civil twilight, an aviation term meaning the time of day a plane can fly without using night protocols. That means the roof will get so cold it will contract. In warm weather the sun on a metal roof can drive the temperature up to well over 50 degrees. The metal will expand. In order not to lose a roof, these factors must be considered.

"Bettisworth & Co. also factors in sustainability when designing a structure.

"We strive for very energy-efficient buildings, sustainable design. One school we designed received a Department of Energy Grant."

Clai Porter, an architect with 30 years of architectural design and construction experience, is not only head of his own firm, NCP Design/Build Ltd., Anchorage, he is founding organizer of the CCHRC, currently serving on the CCHRC board of directors as chairman. He has twice won Alaska State Builder of the Year, in addition to winning the NAHB Remodeler of the Year award.

Porter also serves on the board of directors of the Alaska State Home Building Association. The ASHBA is a statewide organization where building contractors and those engaged in trade industries or professions related to housing, meet to discuss concerns of common interest.

"I consider the CCHRP my second job," Porter joked. "We have a tremendously varied climate. In Ketchikan, in a rain forest area, there can be 60 inches of rain. Barrow, an Arctic desert, can have 40 to 50 inches of snow. New building on permafrost requires level footings. We have the methodology to level the footings. Indoor air quality is a severe issue. We humans put out a terrific amount of pollutants, which can and does lead to illness.

"Most of what we do at this point can be about habitability standards and ventilation. These issues can be solved, but not with outdated technologies. The CCHRP is a good way to figure out and introduce better ways of designing and constructing buildings and houses, as well as ways to solve existing problems. It can be a tool to better utilize our resources and better solve our building problems."

Alaskan architects have always been concerned about energy efficiency and finding ways to meet the challenges of Alaska's environment. With new and changing technologies brought on by the Lower 48's growing interest in sustainability, come opportunities for creative businesses to thrive. And if the interest in sustainability does create a new Alaska economy, Jack Hebert won't be a bit surprised.

"The people who come to Alaska," said Hebert, "have come to the spot on top of the world. They are restless, innovative and think out of the box. This is really the last frontier where you get a lot of amazingly creative people."
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Author:Pielli, Brooke
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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