As boom towns shot up all across Alaska during the 20th century, colonial residences seemed like a good way to provide decent housing to the oil-rich state’s growing population. But over time, these homes, imported from the Lower 48, proved to be woefully unfit for Alaska’s antagonistic environment. They’re some of the most energy-inefficient buildings in the country. They’re expensive to heat and poorly built, which has led to significant overcrowding, poor ventilation, and high respiratory illness among Native Alaskans. These homes have fueled a devastating housing crisis in Alaska, and climate change is only accelerating their demise.
Enter the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, a part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and a nonprofit based at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks that is pioneering sustainable and resilient circumpolar architecture in an increasingly unpredictable climate.
CCHRC takes a dual-pronged approach. From its lab in Fairbanks, CCHRC tests and refines innovative climate technology, like movable foundations, air ventilation systems, and thermal envelopes. But when it comes to design, its work is tailored specifically to local culture, traditions, and environmental needs. The challenges of building in Alaska are numerous: cost, infrastructure, supplies, weather. Compounded by thawing permafrost and melting sea ice, it’s only getting more difficult. As time goes on, communities will be forced to make the decision whether to relocate or battle to stay in place.
Reporting for The Washington Post, Casey Quackenbush visits several sites built by CCHRC in rural communities to learn how Alaskans are adapting their homes and learning to live with a changing climate in real time.