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Story Publication logo September 27, 2021

Housing in Alaska Can’t Survive Climate Change. This Group Is Trying a New Model.

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An independent research center is working to help communities adapt their homes to an increasingly...


MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, Alaska — Francis Waskey’s house used to stand four feet above ground on wooden stilts. Now, the mud underneath it has swallowed them whole. As the posts sank over the years into the thawing, carbon-rich frozen soil known as permafrost, Waskey tried propping up the 28-by-36-foot wooden structure with two empty propane tanks, to no avail. The ground shifted so much that the vinyl floor split apart. Nails popped out of the floorboards. The windows shattered, leaving Waskey — a Yupik native who grew up in the home with his family and remained after his parents passed — with icy drafts through subzero winters.

As a construction team used crowbars to pull plywood from the walls, the workers unearthed the source of a musty stench: black mold swirling through spongy yellow insulation like marble cake, so bad that Waskey says taking the stairs now leaves him winded. He has lived here his entire life.

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“The last couple days I could hear the house shifting and cracking,” says Waskey, 55. “It sounds like someone’s trying to get into my house.”

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After five decades, the house, which was never built to thrive in the extreme climate of southwest Alaska, will be torn down. Waskey’s home, like so many across the state, was thrown up during the economic boom of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, one of the world’s largest oil pipelines that transformed Alaska into a petroleum state during the 1970s and fueled a home-building frenzy. But these homes were imported from the temperate Lower 48, designs so incompatible with Alaska’s northern environment that they’ve fueled a statewide housing crisis. To make matters worse, Waskey’s house was built on permafrost, the layer of frozen organic material covering 80 percent of Alaska that is thawing rapidly and accelerating the demise of anything built on top of it, including the pipeline itself.

In the next few months, Waskey’s home in Mountain Village, a Yupik village of 855, will be replaced by a new prototype designed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) — 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. It’s the latest of 22 prototypes that the CCHRC has built to withstand Alaska’s diverse and antagonistic climate — high winds, extreme snowfall, temperature swings from minus-50 to 80 degrees — and fulfill the needs of its occupants, who often reside in native rural communities.

As climate change destabilizes Alaska, the CCHRC is designing for an uncertain future. “If we cannot predict what the climate is going to do, then all of our architecture should be adapted,” says Aaron Cooke, the architect who leads the Sustainable Northern Communities Program at the CCHRC/NREL. “Your building has to be able to change.”

But to build in Alaska is a dizzying puzzle of past, present and future challenges. The state sits at the end of a long supply chain mostly disconnected from the road system, which means the cost to barge materials and build is prohibitively expensive, especially for remote and economically distressed areas like Mountain Village. For years, families have crowded into the same dilapidated homes, driving the state’s overcrowding rate to over twice the national average. The homes are inefficient and poorly insulated, burdening families with heating bills sometimes more than 30 percent of their incomes. Without proper mold management and ventilation, respiratory illnesses are endemic in Alaska, especially among Indigenous children. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, the pneumonia hospitalization rate for infants is tenfold higher than for other infants in the United States.

All the while, Alaska’s permafrost, coastlines and sea ice are receding. As the state warms at twice the rate as the rest of the United States, 31 villages face imminent threats, prompting communities to make the decision whether to “relocate or battle to stay in place,” Cooke says.

“We have to adapt. We have no choice,” says Rick Thoman, an Alaskan climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the International Arctic Research Center. When it comes to housing, “clearly thinking through what the environment would be like in say 30 or 50 years … is going to be critical.”

When Jack Hébert moved into a sod house in 1973, the traditional dwelling of Alaska’s Indigenous Inupiaq people, the future CCHRC founder was a 23-year-old mountaineer exploring the western Brooks Range with his first wife. For three winters, Hébert lived in a semi-subterranean house built of logs and sod and learned — through essential lessons passed on from the Indigenous to early homesteaders — what sort of shelter it takes to stay warm through brutal Arctic storms and long stretches of darkness.

Two decades later, this experience would shape Hébert’s vision for the CCHRC. Hébert, now 71, went on to become a builder in the 1980s and ’90s, right as the housing boom began to fail Alaskans en masse. Hébert and a group of professional builders teamed up, consulted with the Canadians (who were a decade ahead in dealing with similar challenges), and decided that if they were going to untangle the mess of colonial architecture, they would need a research center to focus specifically on Arctic building science. In 1999, the CCHRC was born.

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Hébert came to see the housing crisis as a failure to collaborate with the people who already knew how to survive here: the first Alaskans.

“I realized … that incorporating the wisdom of a people who had over 10,000 to 20,000 years adapted to one of the harshest climates was an important step,” Hébert says of the CCHRC/NREL. “The foundation for everything we did, particularly in rural Alaska, [had to be] this combination of Indigenous wisdom and 21st-century technologies.”

In the case of Mountain Village, the Asa’carsarmiut Tribal Council cold called the CCHRC two years ago to discuss its primary challenges: failing foundations and overcrowding. It’s not uncommon for two to four families to live in the same three-bedroom house; throughout the village, insulation is rotting, ceilings are separating from walls, and crooked piles support collapsing floors. Residents will use anything to keep their houses from subsiding: ATV drums, concrete slabs, wood cribbing like Jenga blocks. When the floors give way, residents use blankets and sleeping bags to choke off the cold air.

“They feel nanikua because they can’t escape from where they’re living,” says Catherine Moses, a tribal administrator with the council, using a Yupik word to describe the feeling of desperation or hopelessness. “That’s the only place to live.”

The CCHRC took these notes back to their lab in Fairbanks, where a team of 24, ranging in expertise from anthropology to engineering, reconciled these needs with the tribe’s financial reality. On top of the CCHRC’s development, Mountain Village needs 91 houses repaired if not demolished — but there is only money budgeted for six new homes this year ($79,000-$94,000 for materials per prototype). The CCHRC designed six small prototypes for low-income occupants like Waskey, who used to work in commercial fishing but is now unemployed. The foundation of his 288-square-foot unit will be pre-engineered in a way that, should his finances improve, Waskey could expand the house to 480 square feet, which can be tricky and expensive to do on permafrost.

Then, the CCHRC paired these blueprints with the technology needed for the climate. For the freezing winters, the house is equipped with an insulation-ventilation system that keeps heat in, moisture and dirty air out, and generally uses 70 to 80 percent less fuel use than average homes. The adjustable foundation, normally used for things like temporary bridges, can shift up to nine inches with the vulnerable permafrost underneath Mountain Village. Should the permafrost deteriorate beyond habitation, strong beams can be hooked up to a truck to move the house.

“We try to put as much versatility into things as we can,” says building educator Ilya Benesch, building educator at the CCHRC/NREL. Because of climate change, transience has become an essential component of building. In 2019, the CCHRC assisted with the relocation of Newtok, a Yupik village of 400 people in southwest Alaska whose coastlines were eroding so fast that the entire village had to move upriver to a rare spot of volcanic bedrock called Mertarvik — an estimated $100 million project that took two decades to plan. Relocation is not yet in the purview of Mountain Village, but they are moving buildings.

“It happens everywhere at some point or another,” Benesch says. “A lot of western Alaska is starting to grapple with exactly that reality … We’re just at the tip of this thing.”

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On the banks of the Yukon River in Mountain Village, there was nothing but a taut electrical wire holding a house on the slope from tumbling into the silty water. Even a 10-by-20-foot wooden house was too much for the posts underneath. It lacks electricity or running water, but it’s warm and mold free, and Waskey needs a home while his new one is constructed. So Ron Lawrence, 46, a house-maintenance worker with the tribe, scoured the village for a metal beam, screwed it to the base of the house, and chained it up to a loader parked uphill. The house only needed to move two feet back into place. Lawrence looked in his rearview mirror, waited for the okay from his team, and quickly tapped the accelerator. “Lo and behold, the house moved,” Lawrence recounts. “We were all shaking.”

“It’s hit or miss,” says Lawrence, who moved two other houses in Mountain Village by tractor. “All of this is new to us.”

A few decades ago, simple elevation was sufficient to keep the house and permafrost intact.

“Now, it is not,” says geophysics professor Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. “Now in many locations, [permafrost has] come to this critical zero temperature point.” Permafrost is estimated to store twice as much carbon than is in the atmosphere. Once it surpasses freezing, it releases carbon and methane — so much that even if fossil fuels emissions halted tomorrow, the thawing permafrost will still contribute 1.7 degrees to warming over the next few centuries. “[The permafrost] is out of control,” Romanovsky says. “And that makes it more dangerous.”

Despite the immediate threat of climate change to housing in Alaska, the CCHRC’s economic survival was, until recently, in jeopardy. After years of relying on grants and state funding, the CCHRC was left in the lurch after Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget cuts in 2019. Then last year, the Energy Department’s NREL announced a partnership with the CCHRC, which will expand both their resources and impact.

Instrumental to this alliance was Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who sees the CCHRC as part of her vision of Alaska as a leader of climate innovation. “It is exactly these types of projects … that we have to get behind, and I [was] not going to let this thing die,” says Murkowski, who is a regular champion for climate adaptation and rural native communities. But Murkowski, along with most Republicans in Alaska, also supports the expansion of oil drilling with ConocoPhillips’s new $2 billion Willow project in the North Slope, perpetuating Alaska’s climate-oil dilemma.

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This raises the existential question of how meaningful the CCHRC’s work can be when climate policy is not aligned with adaptation. On the roof of the CCHRC’s lab, Cooke, the architect, pauses to contemplate this. “It’s going to start being harder and harder to find a place that isn’t changing,” he says. “[Climate change] is not theoretical … that is something that people in temperate regions need to hear.” As profoundly as things have already changed in Alaska, Cooke feels grateful that the CCHRC gets a head start in adapting. “Because once New York City and New Orleans change, there’s not gonna be any money to help little old Alaska.”

When the day came for the demolition of Waskey’s house, it fell without a fight. Lawrence, the repair man, once again hooked up the house to the loader. But this time, “You don’t have to be so careful,” Lawrence joked. He accelerated, and the wooden frame cracked and crunched into the back corner, sending yellow poofs of rotten insulation into the air. Lawrence was hoping to drag the house away in one go, but the floor was so damp that it tore in half, revealing a rusty barrel and crinkled trash bin placed there years ago to support the house. Waskey’s sister, Rose, came to wish their childhood home goodbye.

In the coming weeks, the crew will erect a new home for Waskey, just in time for the winter. It may not be able to withstand the elements forever, but it will be warm.


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