Alaska: Will Octagonal Homes Reshape Rural Housing?

Sarah Palin may be having a banner year, but some of her fellow residents in rural Alaska have been facing a rough spring.

Rain, freezing temperatures and harsh weather conditions have taken a toll on homes in the rural Alaskan town of Quinhagak (population: 555). Last year, a report by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) found that one-third of the homes in the area are worthy of being condemned because they are moldy and rotting from the inside out. The CCHRC has announced design plans for two prototype homes that could change the rotten housing conditions plaguing many rural Alaskan residents.

Prompted by requests from area residents and housing officials, the CCHRC designed two types of homes tailor-made for the weather found in different rural Alaskan communities. Many of the current homes in the area were built in Idaho in the 1970s and shipped to the area. The ranch-style homes were not made to stand up to Alaska's Arctic conditions.

The Quinhagak prototype is an octagon-shaped home modeled after the circular-shaped sod houses that were built by the Yup'ik natives of the region. The circular shape of the home rids it of hallways that make it harder to keep heat in the living areas. The prototype will also have an Arctic Entry, or laturaq, on the side of the home that faces the most wind. The laturaq will keep moisture from blowing into the home's walls and prevent heat from seeping out of the abode. The 950-square-foot, three-bedroom prototype home is expected to cost potential homebuyers $200,000, which is far less than the price tag of dwellings that were recently built in the area.

Nonetheless, there have been concerns that the homes might be too costly for the residents in the low-income community. The CCHRC's prototype homes are designed to be highly energy efficient, requiring approximately 150 gallons of oil per year. Current homes in the area use five times that amount, according to the CCHRC, which means the cost of the homes could be offset somewhat by immense savings in energy bills.

The second prototype home will be built in Point Lay, an Arctic coastal community off the Chukchi Sea. That design includes an 18-inch buffer on the home's foundation. The soy-foam insulation will not allow the home to melt the permafrost beneath it, thereby preventing moisture from leaching into the base of the residence. Two of the walls in the Point Lay prototype home will slope inward to stop snowdrifts from forming against the dwellings. Snowdrifts can cause moisture to seep into a home's walls and cause rotting and mold.

The prototype homes should only take four weeks to build and are expected to be done by July. The CCHRC plans on monitoring the homes during the winter to evaluate energy efficiency, moisture infiltration levels and air quality.

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