UA Fairbanks unveils cold weather housing experiment

FAIRBANKS (AP) — The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ grand experiment in sustainable student housing has officially begun.

UAF unveiled its newest housing development, the Sustainable Village, on Oct. 3. Unlike the generic dorms scattered across most campuses, the units form a living research project that supporters say could reshape construction techniques in the north.

In terms of student housing, the development is barely a blip among the hundreds of units offered on campus — the four buildings house just 17 students. But the Sustainable Village, built amid a spruce forest in cooperation with the neighboring Cold Climate Housing Research Center, will be watched closely in the years ahead as a model for efficient cold-weather construction.

“This is an example of what’s possible — just a small one,” CCHRC President Jack Hebert told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Using a combination of student suggestions, proven techniques and experimental design, the development was erected in just five months. It emphasized sustainability, with little heavy equipment used. Even the trees on the site were chipped to be used on the pathways between buildings.

The units are each warmed with a 17,000 Btu furnace, the same as the type used to heat the cabs of long-haul trucks. Without any other heat sources, the super-insulated buildings could be heated with an estimated 200 gallons or less of heating fuel per year.

Each building will have supplementary systems to provide an added boost — hydronic pumps, solar heat, pellet stoves or a ceramic storage device.

With tight, hyper-insulated homes, inadequate ventilation is often the main problem. To address that, Hebert said, designers tied the heating and ventilation systems together — it’s impossible to heat the home without proper air movement.

“It’s like a nice, thick parka, and it’s zipped all the way up, all the baffles are filled,” Hebert said.

To see how the units perform, each unit is being wired with monitoring equipment. Students also are assigned tasks such as keeping track of water and energy usage.

The units are built on marginal permafrost at an average temperature of 31 degrees. Keeping that ground frozen is a primary goal, using two different types of foundations. One unit even has a system to circulate cold air beneath the house to keep the ground frozen.

“We’ve tried a number of things here,” UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers said. “We’ll see what works — it is an experiment.”

The project has thus far been cost-effective, finishing on time and under budget. At about $200,000 per building — not including land and monitoring equipment that will gauge its performance — the units are expected to be paid off entirely through student rent. Rogers said it’s the lowest per-bed cost of any University of Alaska housing project in many years.

“The project will support itself,” Hebert said.

He said it also could provide a recipe for Alaska construction techniques. The Sustainable Village homes were each designed so their components can fit into a DC-6 cargo plane, providing a possible recipe for rural construction.

Laura McCollough, the UAF director of residence life, said the $700 per student monthly rents in the Sustainable Village are comparable to other on-campus private room housing. She said the units drew solid interest, with a waiting list of applicants pursuing one of the rooms located south of the UAF main campus.

“I’ve always been interested in sustainable living, and this just seemed like a cool opportunity,” said Lex Treinen, a graduate student in Northern Studies who lives in Spruce House.

CCHRC officials plan to spend the next year evaluating the performance of the Sustainable Village units before embarking on the next phase in 2014. Depending on what succeeds and fails in the first phase, the next four buildings could end up being considerably different, Hebert said.

“We’re very much looking at the economics of these systems to see how they work,” he said.