New student housing plans to cut fossil fuels


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A conceptual drawing shows one the four new student housing units being built for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sustainable Village.

Image courtesy of Cold Climate Housing Research Center

Jack Hebert has been building houses a long time, but with a twist. The president and CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center has a plan to build new student housings units that will become a standard in construction techniques.

The four 1,500-square-foot homes are called the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sustainable Village for a reason. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center, which is building the village, intends for these to help pave a path toward cutting fossil fuel use in the homes and getting them to maintain themselves through other energy means.

“The importance of this sustainable village is to show in a more accessible location what is possible in our severe environments,” Hebert said. “It’s a great way to show a holistic approach to community development.”

These are research-based houses that will use a combination of renewable energy rather than fuel. Hebert said the idea is to develop the ground in a manner that impacts the natural environment as lightly as possible, including the location, house plans, infrastructure, transportation and access.

The houses will employ a combination of architectural techniques to eliminate fossil fuel use. Solar and hydronic systems will generate electricity and heat, supplemented by pellets and other biomass energy that can be stored. The ultimate goal is for this village to be self-sustaining in heat and power generation. Hebert said this is a lofty goal that won’t be easy at the Interior, but he has high hopes.

The houses will use an integrated water system in which the wastewater is treated onsite and in a manner to avoid negative environmental impact. Water use is a combination of delivered water with rainwater conservation and water harvesting.

Everything — from the way the walls are built to the insulated glass used to the seasonal shuttering — is designed to increase efficiency and steer away from fossil fuels. The mechanical, heat and air quality systems are integrated to accommodate the tight space.

Work is also being done on solar thermal capacity to store hot water. Hebert hopes to continue this research to come closer to storing ample hot water this way.

“We’re integrating those systems in a number of different ways,” he said. “And this is a very dynamic approach so we are in a sense designing and experimenting and applying as we go.”

Research is one of the primary goals of the sustainable village. The idea is to discover what works in sustainable green construction, especially with rough ground and climate matters prevalent in Alaska. Designs and building will be adjusted throughout the process, and those ideas will be used in future building projects.

“What we really want to do is show the general public and the building community the techniques we’re using and test them for applicability and help move those technologies into common practice,” Hebert said.

The UAF students and crew just ground broke ground on the houses, and now the clock is ticking to complete them. Each home will house four students in the fall, and so must be completed by August. The houses will go on campus land adjacent to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

A student design competition was held last year to determine project plans. Skye Sturm, a continuing education student studying sustainability at UAF, was part of the winning design team. She said the first step was getting the foundations in. The degrading permafrost adds an extra challenge to this, which is what the designers wanted to face since this is a common hurdle in many Alaska areas.

Sturm said two techniques will be employed to examine their success rates. The first option is driving steel piles into the ground for the foundations. The other is using raft technology that employs insulation to keep heat inside without affecting the frozen ground.

“This land is not typical land to build and that’s sort of the idea,” Sturm said. “But it’s land we have to build on out in the bush.”

Another point is to research methods of construction to build greener yet affordable houses that can be built in the private sector, said Sturm

Each home at UAF will be in the $200,000 range. Students occupying them will pay rents comparable to other housing options. Hebert said these rents will support what would be conventional 15-year mortgage, paying off the building costs in that time.

He said another advantage is that this is done by the private sector and eliminates the need for the university to ask the Legislature for more housing construction funds.

These four homes aren’t the end of the project. Hebert envisions 40 homes in the future at the UAF Sustainability Village. Sturm hopes family housing units will be developed in the future.

The Cold Climate Research Center is involved in about 20 communities statewide and has developed similar experimentation models to this, mostly in rural areas. Hebert describes this one as “starting with a blank slate” and a way to seek answer to cost of living challenges Alaskans face, both in urban and rural areas.

The challenges are large. Rural areas have the added difficulties of increased costs for transporting materials and energy, as well as limited workforces and training opportunities.

He said creative solutions to building can generate ways to build quickly and efficiently. For example, he said a good amount of materials can be generated locally, such as framing lumber, recycled material and insulation.

“And the more money we can keep locally and as much local as possible is of course the best thing for all of us,” he said.

Hebert said the research center has been able to reduce such energy use by 80 percent in some of the villages where they’ve worked, as well as reducing home costs and assembly times. He said if this works in rural areas, it should also be successful in the bigger cities.

As far as saving money, he said these rural prototypes are saved from burning 200 gallons of fuel oil a year.

“In our prototypes, we feel like we have had some significant success but it’s the beginning of the successes I think we’ll accomplish in the next few years,” Hebert said.

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