Fortune Favors the Cold: Sustainable Arctic Shelters in the Twilight of Oil

April 30, 2016
May/June 2016
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2016 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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On a sunny 90°F day in late July, my girlfriend and I pedaled our bikes toward the St. John’s Bridge in Portland, Oregon, to enjoy its soaring vantage 200 feet above the Willamette River.

We were diverted by a police cruiser blocking the lane. The officer told us that a protest had closed the bridge to all traffic. Retreating into the neighborhood for a better view, we saw red and yellow streamers billowing under its girders from a dozen activists suspended in harnesses. A flotilla of kayaks bobbed beneath them.

Upriver, a blue-and-white ship approached the bridge, and then we understood. The protest delayed the departure of MSV Fennica, a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker, by 36 hours. Though our reasons for the trip differed—my girlfriend had secured a teaching job—we soon learned that its destination was the same as ours: Arctic Alaska.

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(Credit: Griffin Hagle)

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Don't have an infrared camera handy? Thermal bridging like this is easily spotted in many stick-frame structures during the coldest months of the year, which coincide with the two-month “polar night.” For about 65 days from November to January, the sun remains completely below the horizon. (Credit: Griffin Hagle)

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Barrow’s 3-mile utilidor is kept at 48°F to keep water and sewage moving through its pipes, and ventilated at a rate of 6 air changes per hour. With a trapezoidal cross-section measuring 6 feet high, 6 feet wide at the base, and 5 feet wide at the top, it was completed in 1984 using custom-milled timber salvaged from the eruption zone of Mt. Saint Helens. (Credit: Griffin Hagle)

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Potable water tanks like these are an alternative to much costlier piped infrastructure like the utilidor. (Credit: TNHA)

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The home in Wainwright tested at 170 CFM50 (1.3 ACH50).

Oil Is Not as It Seems

On a rainy, gusty 35°F evening 48 hours later, we landed 320 miles above the Arctic Circle in our new home of Barrow, Alaska. I was fascinated at once with the city’s mundane amenities. Hot running water and Wi-Fi seemed miraculous here, but the pipeline glimpsed during our quick stopover in Prudhoe Bay, 200 miles east of Barrow, explained it all. Thanks to tax revenues derived from oil infrastructure, this predominantly Iñupiat Eskimo community at the northern extremity of the United States exists within the modern world—or at least a plane ride from it.

Barrow is the seat of the North Slope Borough, a county the size of Kansas, where oil is life as its 9,700 residents have become accustomed to living it. Discovery of the largest oil field in North America at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 spurred construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which at its peak 20 years later carried 2 million barrels of crude per day 800 miles south to a marine terminal in Valdez. Local taxes levied on oil development—$250 million annually by 2010—brought teachers to the Slope, obviating students’ need to attend Native boarding schools as far as 1,000 miles from home. They made possible piped water and sewer, fire engines, snowmobiles, GPS, search-and-rescue aircraft, and a new $160 million regional hospital. If certain aspects of Iñupiat life have changed with oil, nobody on the North Slope denies the benefits of the Prudhoe windfall. Skin tents and dog sleds may now belong to the past, but so too does death from strep throat.

However, oil hasn’t eased all of the North Slope’s problems, and its future is far from certain. The pipeline is now two-thirds empty, with production dropping 5% annually. Long resigned to the offshore exploration that drew such vehement rebuke in cities like Portland, locals reacted to Shell's withdrawal in mixed fashion. One state legislator called the company’s exit from Arctic waters “heartbreaking.” But barring major setbacks, like those that dogged the broader industry after BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, or Shell’s own mishaps in Alaska in 2012, “first oil” still wouldn’t have issued from its wells in the Chukchi Sea for another 10–15 years, costing the company tens of billions of dollars and requiring another 400-plus miles of pipeline, a fourth of it underwater. The local payoff was also questionable with so much equipment offshore, beyond the borough’s taxing jurisdiction.

Still, few people in Barrow looked askance at the fleet of helicopters that shuttled Shell’s crews to and from its rigs dozens of times per week during the 2015 season. They represented a chance, however slim, to sustain the city’s standard of living. Doing so costs a fortune, spent largely on housing and energy. As it turns out, erecting buildings in a wind-lashed climate with over 20,000 heating degree-days has consequences for fuel costs, durability, comfort, and health nearly unimaginable at lower latitudes.

More Buildings, More Problems

For 4,000 years, shelter changed little across the North Slope. Families braced their sod homes with whale jawbones and driftwood gleaned over the brief summer. Mounds visible on the tundra today testify to their hardiness. Temporary winter shelters—the classic image of an Eskimo dwelling, though iglu refers to any house—were easily carved from packed snow during hunting expeditions. But the end of the 19th century marked the arrival of commercial whalers and missionaries, and with them a steep increase in housing problems. Charles Brower, an early American resident of Barrow, warned his Iñupiat neighbors against abandoning their warm but “dirty” sod homes for the leaky, poorly insulated frame houses the newcomers had urged them to adopt.

“I knew they would not be as comfortable in a small frame house,” he recounts in his 1942 memoir, Fifty Years Below Zero. “They weren’t half so practical as the old-style native igloos which generations of trial and error had developed for just such conditions, and in which an even day-and-night temperature could be maintained by stone lamps.” He goes on to relate how traditional Native dance halls were torn down in desperation to feed wood stoves inside the cold, drafty enclosures. Many who crowded into these houses caught pneumonia and died.

A century later, overcrowding in substandard homes remained a problem throughout the Alaskan bush. The Alaska Natives Commission’s Health Task Force reported an average of 3.7 people per rural household in 1994, compared to 2.72 in urban areas. The North Slope had the highest percentage of households shared by three or more generations at 18.7%, most suffering “dramatically poor housing conditions in terms of space per resident and state of repair.” People who live in cold climates spend a lot of time indoors; with such conditions widespread, respiratory ailments top the list of reasons for which medical care is sought in Alaska. While asthma rates fall below those of most cities, the mortality rate for certain lower respiratory diseases in the North Slope is double that of the rest of the state and the nation.

Claude Garoutte, a project manager for Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority in Barrow, is not surprised to hear this. He credits deficient ventilation, poor moisture control, indoor smoking, and wind-driven summer dust; especially the dust.

“It’s amazing,” he says, despite his not being surprised. “Isn’t it?”

Maddening might be a better word for it. Though water trucks wet Barrow’s unpaved roads in summer, blowing dust finds an easy entrance through windows kept open to relieve overheating. Our second-story apartment in a twelve-plex is no exception; even with the hydronic baseboards turned off, we crack a window for ventilation and comfort. The lack of moisture in the air doesn’t help either. (One of our first purchases was a small room humidifier.) Flu spreads much more easily in dry conditions, and despite its northerly location, Barrow is a cold desert. Less than 5 inches of rain falls annually. While the outdoor air occasionally reaches 100% relative humidity with snow and fog, the extreme cold is an excellent example of why absolute humidity is the more meaningful metric. Cold air just doesn’t carry much water. When it warms up, the air can become painfully dry.

Indoor air quality is just one of many housing problems. Permafrost is dynamic stuff, and the polar region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. While that makes for fascinating scientific study, it doesn’t make for easy home building. In the past, the ground’s seasonal active layer of thaw ran 1–2 feet below the surface, but deeper active layers are common now. A home in the village of Wainwright had to be condemned after a frost boil erupted beneath it, heaving its pilings 15° from vertical. The vast majority of structures in the Arctic are built on such pilings to keep heat off the frozen soil. Driving them deeper can compensate somewhat for deepening active layers, but the hard lesson in Wainwright highlights one of the piling system’s disadvantages: permanence.

“You’re stationary,” Garoutte says. “You’re there forever. You can go up and down through re-leveling, but you’re stationary. And Mother Nature isn’t.”

The earth is more than unsteady—in some places, it’s disappearing altogether. Besieged by chronic flooding, the entire community of Point Hope moved 2 miles inland in the 1970s. Continued erosion now threatens its airport. Barrow’s half-billion-dollar utilidor, a man-sized wooden service tunnel buried in the permafrost, is plagued by storm surges that retreating shore ice once helped keep at bay. One flooded pump station could knock half of the city’s water and sewer out of circulation. Swells driven by 40-knot winds last August washed out one of its main roads. Evaluations are under way for a multimillion-dollar seawall to defend both communities, but there are no guarantees that any of the proposed configurations will withstand the destructive summer storms. With an eye on a shifting climate and economy, Garoutte is convinced that homes that rely less on this expensive, vulnerable infrastructure are the best investment for the future.

Efficient Homes Built for Climate Resilience

The Iñupiat are hunter-gatherers who lived seminomadic lives before they came in contact with Westerners. A collaborative program with the Fairbanks-based Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) called Sustainable Northern Shelters (SNS) melds elements of that past with modern building science. It’s now on its sixth-generation design, but Garoutte says the fifth is where it hit its stride. In many ways, the adjustable, portable steel skid foundation—basically, an oversized sled resting on permafrost-friendly insulated pads—is a nod to those older rhythms of life, a gesture of respect for and understanding of nature’s whims. It makes sense. A thousand years ago, if your shelter was overwhelmed by the elements, you packed up and made a new start somewhere else.

The new homes use structural insulated panel (SIP) construction, which means faster build times, tighter enclosures, and better control over thermal bridging (see “Two Case Studies”). Even dual staggered stud walls used in previous generations would exhibit some bridging—Garoutte describes how frost would appear inside on the screw heads. I was invited to blower door test the program’s latest home in Barrow while the metal roof was being installed. I measured 97 CFM50, right at the 0.6 ACH50 mark for the 1,100 ft2 house, which was declared an agency record. Intrigued, I asked Garoutte what it would take to build a Passive House here.

“I’m sure that it’s possible,” he replied, “but every material has to be looked at in terms of shipping cost and logistics.” Freight alone costs $100,000–150,000 for each house. “So we’d have to find lighter material that performs as well as or better than we’ve been doing.”

What’s been done so far is impressive. Working with the CCHRC and students from Barrow’s Iḷisaġvik College in 2009, the first-generation home was built with a continuous 9-inch polyurethane envelope at Anaktuvuk Pass in the foothills of the Brooks Range. It incorporates earth berming, a sod roof, and even a small PV system. Monitoring of its performance since occupation has supplied valuable data—it uses 25% of the heating oil typical of a home on the Slope, or approximately 215 gallons compared to the typical 860 gallons—but the scrutiny has also revealed imperfections. A few return visits have been necessary to improve ventilation or repair foam “rebounding” up to 1½ inches from the window framing. (There weren’t a lot of studies on how closed-cell foam behaves at 60°F below.) Though the $261,000 development cost overshot the program’s $150,000 target in the end, Garoutte is grateful for the lessons learned.

“It’s a great house. We still have issues with it, but it set the stage for what we’re doing now,” he says. The home was also the first of many to employ a $40,000 self-contained wastewater treatment system designed by Lifewater Engineering in Fairbanks. The compact unit, which uses membrane bioreactor technology and requires service about twice a year, costs about one-tenth of what the borough pays to hook a new home up to Barrow’s water and sewer utilities. Like the cost of most things, that cost goes up in more-remote settings. Gesturing to a borough planning report on his wall for the villages, Garoutte tells me that the figure is over a million dollars per new connection, more than enough to build two of the comparatively independent SNS homes.

The long-term effects of falling oil production on the Arctic are not lost on Garoutte. A hunter himself, he sees an expanding role for high-performance housing in maintaining the North Slope’s cherished way of life. Unlike in other parts of the country with milder weather and cheaper fuel (that is, everywhere south of here), on the North Slope energy costs top the list of reasons to pursue sustainable construction. The ability to better withstand power outages in a harsh climate is another. “You could build yourself out of crisis with the right type of building,” says Garoutte. By cutting operational and maintenance costs, “there are so many options to win.”

Two Case Studies

Wainwright House

This 983 ft2 home in the village of Wainwright earned the housing authority a Six-Star Building Energy Efficiency Standard (BEES) rating from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, the highest possible. Its projected energy usage intensity is 66 kBtu per square foot per year. Using 303 gallons of #1 heating oil and 6,572 kWh annually, it is less energy intensive by almost two-thirds than the average home on the North Slope (see Figure A). Served by truck-hauled potable water and a Lifewater ExtremeSTP tank, it requires less public infrastructure, the cost of which can exceed that of the home.

The sprayed foam footings beneath the skiddable foundation are reinforced with wire forms and protected with spray-on truck bed liner. The system compensates for uneven ground while minimizing damaging heat transfer to the sensitive tundra. Quarterly elevation photos have been promising so far, with comparisons showing little to no settling.

Barrow House

At 97 CFM50 (0.6 ACH50), this 1,100 ft2 home in Barrow is the tightest ever built on the North Slope. Its triple-redundant heating system includes this natural-gas room heater and electric-resistance strip panels, right, which back up the forced-air system supplied by the condensing water heater.

Power Beyond Petroleum

Alaska is an energy powerhouse. Oil has been the state’s banner fuel, and remains so for the foreseeable future. The U.S. Navy expects Arctic waters to be ice-free up to three months of the year by 2050, vastly increasing shipping traffic past Barrow, and prices may certainly rise enough before then to lure offshore drilling back. But even the region that struck it rich in the crude boom of the ’70s knows it can’t shoulder the lion’s share of its residents’ fuel costs forever.

In a bid to control those costs, the borough has sought grants for wind generation studies from the state’s Renewable Energy Fund. Feasibility reports were completed for four of its five coastal communities, where diesel generation can cost over $1/kWh. All demonstrated outstanding wind resources. (At $0.11/kWh, the economic case is weak for Barrow, which relies on abundant natural-gas fields nearby.) In a typical installation, three to five 675 kW turbines will offset about a third of each village’s annual demand.

Construction funding and foundation design remain a challenge. The state’s $3.7 billion budget deficit is delaying renewable projects, and erecting the towers on permafrost requires careful engineering. Thermosiphons, tubular vessels that discharge warmth from the active layer to the colder air, could keep the ground at the base of the towers frozen, but there are few precedents. The borough’s installations would be the second-most northerly on the globe—by a few dozen miles—after the Havøygavlen wind farm in Norway.

Garoutte is not a wind expert, but he welcomes the idea of clean power in the villages. “Who doesn’t want to be part of that?” he says, mentioning Kodiak Island in southwest Alaska as the kind of success story he envisions for the North Slope. The community of 6,400 made headlines recently for meeting its 2020 goal of 100% renewable electricity five years early, an achievement President Obama noted during his recent trip to the state. Since 2009, wind has steadily replaced up to 20% of Kodiak’s mix (the rest is hydropower); its diesel generators have scarcely run since early 2014; and residents now enjoy electric rates 5% lower than they did 15 years ago.

Subsistence and Sustainability

While life in rural remote Alaskan villages is threatened by environmental and economic forces often unimaginable to those in the Lower 48, several communities across the country have shown that it’s possible to emerge from devastation stronger, greener—and more economically diverse—than before.

Two examples come to mind. Home Energy reported on the Make It Right Foundation’s redevelopment project in New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina last year ("Mr. Pitt’s Neighborhood,” HE Mar/Apr ’15). Today, 109 LEED Platinum homes occupy a 20-block swath of the Lower Ninth Ward, housing 278 people who enjoy $130 in average monthly utility savings. Equally notable is the 800-person prairie town of Greensburg, Kansas, which took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado in 2007. The Greensburg GreenTown website credits the city’s commitment to 100% wind power and proliferation of LEED structures in the aftermath for a surge in eco-tourism: “As word got out about Greensburg’s intention to rebuild as a model green community, people from around the world started making their way to Kansas, fascinated by this small town's resolve to make its mark.” The communities of Alaska’s North Slope now have an unmistakable chance to make their own mark. But the window is closing. Built on decades of flowing oil, their fortunes now depend on how that hand is played over the next few years. Should a day come when the borough can no longer absorb the costs of living here, the subsistence traditions of the Iñupiat could lose out against survival—here, or somewhere else.

Sustainable shelter and the subsistence lifestyle are intertwined, Garoutte says, and other regions of Alaska serve as cautionary tales. “Down in Yukon or Kobuk, they have a hard time doing subsistence hunting, because fuel is so costly. But if they didn’t have to pay $900 a month, only maybe $80 a month, that would allow them to eat much better, and do what good things in life there are: subsistence and watching over the environment. Being good stewards.”

Garoutte accepts that oil will remain an important part of the country’s energy supply for now, but sees Alaska’s diminishing role in that supply as one of many reasons to pick up the pace of sustainable development in the Arctic. Like the trailblazers in Greensburg and New Orleans, he sees a chance for a less-volatile economic future founded on smart construction. “If we could be forward thinking, the North Slope people would be the leaders of the world in sustainable housing, in every aspect of how to deal with climate change. We could set the stage for everybody else to follow. We’re going to have to be very, very adaptable to overcome what appears to be on the horizon, “ he says.

“My gosh, it’s so much more than a house.”

Griffin Hagle is a writer focused on building performance and the 2015 Habitat X Fellow. He is currently involved in energy and economic development initiatives for local governments in northern Alaska.

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