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Finding a holistic approach to Arctic housing issues

March 18th, 2016 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Building houses and building communication strategies and partnerships went hand in hand at the 4th Sustainable Northern Shelter Forum held in Fairbanks this week in coordination larger Arctic Science Summit Week, Arctic Observing Summit, and meetings of the Arctic Council.

The two-day gathering took place at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, which sponsored the event in partnership with the Institute of the North and Natural Resources Canada.

It brought together a diverse group of participants from Canada and the U.S. including architects, engineers, air and water quality supervisors, and representatives from rural communities, to name a few.

"Our pattern has been to try to build on success, in collaboration, in demonstrating what is possible, and that, if we all do get together, guided by the communities, that our future looks pretty darn good despite the challenges that we have," said Jack Hebert, founder and CEO of the research center. "That's what this is all about."

The research center is the organization that led work on the Anaktuvuk Pass prototype home several years ago in partnership with Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority on the North Slope and the Buckland prototype home in the Northwest Arctic.

The first day was mainly filled with working group meetings and breakout sessions covering an array of topics all relating to the particular challenges of constructing sustainable structures for the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

That meant discussing the bare bones of building, like insulation, materials, traditional design methods, and how to retrofit old houses to make them more livable. But, it also meant bringing in factors that are sometimes ancillary to the building itself but potentially just as important when planning a project like airflow or lack thereof and how that can contribute to both lower energy costs and poor ventilation which then tie in to preventable diseases that are often linked to overcrowding, which is prevalent in rural communities.

It's like a domino effect of housing considerations and this holistic approach to building for the north was the theme and undercurrent of the forum.

The following day, participants put what they'd discussed and learned to the test. They spent the day working on the test case of constructing a multipurpose building for the village of Ruby. While the participants aren't functionally involved in the ground level work at this point, the proposal for a new building in Ruby is real and tribal representatives from the village were present to ground the discussion and take back home what they learned.

"I think it was really important because the tribe, and especially me working with our contractor, we didn't know we had so many different options," said Brenda Ambrose, tribal administrator for Ruby. "We were just going with what other people tell us because we don't know the big contract and construction lingo and better ways to save."

Having a roomful of engineers, architects, and even financial and grant experts at her fingertips focused solely on her community's project was a boon. They were able to clarify options and terms and explain difficult parts of the process.

"I think it was great that all these other entities were here and helping us try to solve all the different parts of the building regarding water and sewer and land and energy," she said. "Everything was good. I enjoyed it. I'm coming away with a lot. Now I want to go meet with our board and our contractor and maybe some of the different groups that were here and come up with a good plan for our building."

That was one of the goals of the research center in hosting this forum—to show not just the benefit, but the necessity, in having community-driven work, which hasn't always been the case in rural Alaska.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, speaking to forum participants on the second day, described years of rural development as projects that came "like spaceships" to villages.

"Kerplunk! No local hire, no nothing, and a community was left with hundreds of thousands, and over a period of time, millions of dollars of maintenance and operations. They had no ownership. It wasn't our project; it was dropped on us from somewhere," he said.

"What happens?" he asked. "You look at these things as kind of an entitlement. 'We need a new washateria, we need this, we need that.' Or, government prescribes what you need and they happen in ways that are determined and designed in Washington D.C. or Anchorage or Seattle or Houston. They have no relationship to where you live and what your values are and what your aspirations are and what you want for your children. And, over time, it begins to break down and it doesn't work anymore and it becomes hugely costly and you're still grateful because you live in the greatest nation in the world and it's putting billions of dollars into where you live, but, it's not you and it's not your place. The result is, if we don't change the way we build Alaska, we will be haunted by continuing generations of places in rural Alaska where nothing works, where people are leaving, where there is no ownership, where there is no sense that this is their place. We as Native or rural people have to take responsibility. We have to change the way we do it."

He pointed to work being done through the research center as having the ethic that could help build a more communicative and functional future for dialogue between urban and rural entities.

"Help us assert leadership. Help us to relearn how to do it ourselves. It will never work otherwise," he said.

At one point during the discussion about Ruby, the idea was raised to train local work crews or, at least, local work advocates rather than hiring entirely outside crews for construction. An advocate could train other crews in the future and local hires would keep money and job skills within the community.

"One of the greatest things we learned from organizing this event is that it's hard sometimes to make the connections that are necessary from the minds in this room to rural communities," said Judith Grunau, project manager and architectural designer for the research center. "Likewise, it's often hard for a community that's struggling with so many things going on beyond just housing to know how to connect to people outside their community to move things along. We definitely have a great disconnect between rural and urban Alaska, between the Native and non-Native cultures, as well. Bridges start right here and are starting right here."

While the test case for the forum was not located in the Arctic, the discussions often centered around communities like Kivalina, Anaktuvuk Pass, and Buckland, where participants had been involved in past projects. And, while there weren't many representatives from the North Slope or Northwest Arctic in attendance, the next step for the research center is moving conversations where they need to happen.

"The idea was that we could gather here in Fairbanks with our Canadian colleagues," said Hebert. "But, in our home, here in Alaska, we need to go to the places where this is occurring, where people are comfortable and at home and see the place and get a feel for it. The lieutenant governor this morning was perfect. Basically, you've got these alien things dropping into villages and [outsiders] walk away and there you have it, with no input [from locals]. And that's got to stop. And we know it."

Developing future projects that are community-led but supported from outside organizations could tap into all of the talent and resources the state has to offer, he said, and would be a good step toward solving some of the housing issues common in the circumpolar north.

"Our communities need to have a passion for place, otherwise rural Alaska is going to continue to be a place in which people suffer, in which things don't work, in which you can't make a difference because it's too costly," said Lt. Gov. Mallott. "But, if you just, in terms of attitude, say 'this isn't a place where we sink dollars, this is a place where we invest in order to grow our future,' things change, because you begin to look at that world differently. And we must look at things differently. We must."

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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