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October 31, 2022

Housing in Northern Alaska

A single-story home with solar panels, surrounded by snow.A prototype home built by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in 2009 that features an airtight envelope, uses 9-inch polyurethane spray foam that reduces heating fuel use by 80 percent, and uses sod — a traditional building material in the area — for roofing. Photo credit: Cold Climate Housing Research Center

The Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority (TNHA) is based in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States. Building and maintaining housing in Utqiaġvik, with its remote location and extreme weather, requires agility and innovation, especially as climate impacts increase. At the Alaska Housing Innovations Summit in Anchorage in August 2022, TNHA chief executive officer and executive director Griffin Hagle-Forster discussed TNHA’s work to support affordable and sustainable housing in Alaska’s Arctic Slope.

Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority

The region TNHA serves not only is one of the coldest and harshest in the nation, but it also is experiencing the most rapid changes in temperature, permafrost thaw, subsidence, and infrastructure impacts. Formed in 1974 in the service area of the Arctic Slope Native Association, TNHA acts as the Tribally Designated Housing Entity for six tribes and operates housing stock in eight Iñupiaq communities. The 300 housing units TNHA manages represent 12 percent of the region’s housing stock. TNHA’s service area is roughly the size of Minnesota, stretching more than 600 miles from the Chukchi Sea to the Canadian border. Because of its remote location, provisions arrive by plane or on an annual barge in late summer; both methods are expensive and present serious challenges to building affordable housing.

Sustainable Northern Shelter Project

Like many affordable housing providers, TNHA pursues the goals of sustainability, resilience, and adaptation in the communities it serves. For Hagle-Forster, sustainability means meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Recognizing that, as climate impacts increase, what has worked in the past might not serve communities well in the future, TNHA seeks solutions to address new and evolving challenges. The agency takes advantage of changes and innovations whenever possible while considering its need for durable, reliable, and replicable buildings and systems that are manageable with limited capacity.

In the late 2000s, TNHA participated in the Sustainable Northern Shelter Program, an initiative of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) to develop new housing designs appropriate for the North Slope. The program sought to change the way housing is approached in rural Alaska and other arctic areas, with a focus on cultural relevance, traditional knowledge, energy efficiency, and resilience. The Sustainable Northern Shelter Program invested significant time and effort into community engagement, soliciting questions and other input from community members to ensure that the prototype homes would be an appropriate fit for each community.

CCHRC built prototype homes in more than 20 Alaska villages, including four generations of designs in TNHA villages. The first-generation design developed under the Sustainable Northern Shelter Program in the TNHA area was the Anaktuvuk Pass Prototype. Completed in 2009, this prototype home—affectionately dubbed the “Flintstone House” for its striking appearance—features an airtight envelope and 9-inch polyurethane spray foam that reduces heating fuel use by 80 percent. Unlike most other homes in the village, which have raised foundations set on pilings, the prototype home has an insulated raft foundation that rests on the ground, reducing the heat loss through the floor. With a sod roof and earth berming, this prototype home resembles traditional sod igloos. When the residents of this house left for a week and allowed the house to run out of heating fuel while they were gone, they returned to find that the home’s inside temperature was 65 degrees Fahrenheit even though the outside temperature was –30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Following the Anaktuvuk Pass Prototype, TNHA worked with CCHRC on three additional designs: Atqasuk (2010–2011); Atqasuk and Point Lay (2011–2012); and Anaktuvuk Pass, Point Lay, and Kaktovik (2013–2014). TNHA developed two subsequent designs used for projects in Atqasuk, Nuiqsut, and Wainwright (2014–2015); and Utqiaġvik (2015).

TNHA learned several lessons from the Sustainable Northern Shelter Program. One lesson is that few people enjoy thinking of their home as an “experiment” or a “test lab.” On a related note, people want their home to be a source of pride, with design features and amenities similar to those that their neighbors or urban dwellers have. In addition, the present value of technological innovation has limits, especially for critical infrastructure in remote underserved areas, and there are political ramifications for pressing innovation contrary to the preferences of the community. Case in point: TNHA specified a self-contained wastewater treatment system for some homes that, while cleverly engineered, created hardships not only for municipal operators but also for homebuyers, who were not prepared to perform the required regular maintenance. These systems will be replaced over the next few years with conventional insulated septic tanks.

TNHA also has learned to favor proven heating systems over more advanced technologies—such as high-efficiency boilers or heat pumps—for its homes in the outlying villages, where reliability can be more important than fuel efficiency; one no-heat call can eliminate any financial advantages from efficiency. The Sustainable Northern Shelter Program also highlighted the essential role of strong regional partnerships, bold and committed leaders, and measurable outcomes. TNHA continues to prioritize innovation in relationships and funding approaches to meet the challenges of the 21st century with speed and scale.

CCHRC executive director Mindy O’Neall pointed out that the work done in the Sustainable Northern Shelter Program continues to reap benefits more than 10 years later. “The Cold Climate Housing Research Center has been able to develop design techniques applicable to many homes because of the prototypes. Because of the work with those communities, we are able to provide consultation in designs that meet environmental and climate challenges, based on what we have learned over the years. By working with federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and HUD, we advise on building standards that can better sustain a changing climate, so they are not an afterthought; they are factored into how a community builds — or rebuilds — from day one. We must change the way structures are being built in remote areas that are prone to severe climate degradation. We have the knowledge and ability to build sustainable structures that can withstand harsh climate conditions and provide healthy homes to live in. TNHA is a living example of making that happen.”

The Utqiaġvik Multifamily Renovation

More recently, TNHA renovated a multifamily housing development in Utqiaġvik, adding energy-efficient and indoor health-oriented features to improve tenant well-being and increase the building’s resilience to climate change. Although this project had been planned since late 2018, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought into sharp focus the need to prioritize housing preservation and rehabilitation, including the proper design and function of indoor comfort and air quality systems. Originally built in 1977, this multifamily building has 29 units spread over 24,000 square feet. Housing 50 people, or about 1 percent of the town’s population, the building is the largest affordable housing development in the region.

TNHA partnered with the Native Village of Barrow to submit a joint Indian Community Development Block Grant Program application for $800,000, which TNHA leveraged with $1.2 million of its core Indian Housing Block Grant Program funding and other state and federal grants into a $3.5 million project over a 3-year period (2020 to 2023). TNHA then partnered again with CCHRC for building forensics and an energy audit for the renovation. Some of the building’s upgrades include expanding electrical service to enable fully electrified units; replacing high-polluting, natural gas-fired stoves with induction stoves; replacing carpets with easy-to-clean vinyl flooring; adding compact, cold-climate, energy-recovery ventilators that bring fresh air into living spaces while minimizing heat and humidity loss; and updating cabinets, doors, locks, interior paint, and millwork. This renovation project extended the life, usability, and sustainability of this vital affordable housing development.

Key Innovations

Technology and processes need to evolve and adapt as the climate changes. Hagle-Forster noted various housing technologies that he anticipates will become increasingly important for TNHA as well as communities nationwide:

  • Heat pumps: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps can be an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners in all climates. Heat pumps work by using electricity to transfer heat rather than generate heat. Most American homes already have a heat pump they use every day: their refrigerator. During cold-weather months, heat pumps use the same principle to move heat from the outdoors into a home, and during the warm-weather months, heat pumps move heat from inside a home to the outdoors.
  • Blower doors: Blower doors help determine how airtight a home is. The information obtained from a blower door test can identify areas of air leakage in a home so that property owners can make comfort, indoor health, and energy-saving improvements. Blower door testing also can be used to address moisture condensation issues, prevent pests from entering a home, and determine sizing for heating and cooling equipment.
  • Induction stoves: Induction stoves are powered by electricity and are generally thought to be more energy-efficient than conventional electric or gas stovetops. According to ENERGY STAR®, induction cooktops are 5 to 10 percent more efficient than conventional electric cooktops and three times more efficient than gas cooktops.
  • Digital Twins: TNHA is conducting a digital twin pilot demonstration with the Alaskan software startup Kartorium. Because of the North Slope’s remote location, bringing in individuals who have the specific skills needed to repair broken systems, such as buildingwide heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, is challenging. A digital twin is a virtual model of a system or an environment that allows an individual who is not at the location to provide remote guidance and expertise.

Another factor just as important as technological innovation is process innovation. As climate-change induced effects such as permafrost subsidence and flooding increasingly affect housing, investing in climate-ready housing represents good risk management. However, incorporating innovative materials and building techniques means little without the ability to appraise, finance, and insure homes in ways that reflect their climate advantages, and Hagle-Forster pointed out that the industry is lagging when it comes to incorporating climate risk and energy efficiency in home valuation and risk management. Energy ratings and green scoring systems attempt to place climate risk into determinations, but these assessments are asset based and difficult to communicate to insurance carriers.

Hagle-Forster proposed changing lending standards to prioritize climate-ready housing features. Under the current system, a borrower typically must complete a lengthy “green addendum” that communicates the high-performance features of a newly constructed home; such an addendum can be provided to an appraiser so they can consider those features while valuing the property. These features often are not obvious and not properly communicated to appraisers, real estate agents, or lenders. Instead of requiring a special addendum when energy-efficient features are present, posits Hagle-Forster, what if lenders required additional documentation to build anything other than a climate-ready home? Making climate readiness the rule rather than the exception would be a fundamental shift in approach for lenders, but Hagle-Forster said that such a change could become necessary as climate impacts build.

Looking Ahead: Climate Policy

As the country and the world confront the consequences of climate change, a growing effort has emerged to identify and pursue responsible and effective climate policy. Hagle-Forster pointed out that the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA) is actually “decent climate policy hidden in plain sight.” Grounded in core principles that are often missing in the larger climate debate — including self-determination, consensus, and recognition of tribal sovereignty — NAHASDA provides a path toward adaptation, mitigation, and resilience that is community driven and responsive to local needs. Over the past 25 years, however, NAHASDA funding has largely been level funded or even cut; that stagnation, along with inflation, has reduced tribal housing providers’ buying power by approximately one-third. By reauthorizing and fully funding NAHASDA, said Hagle-Forster, Congress can give Native American and Alaska Native communities the tools and flexibility to effectively confront climate breakdown on their terms. NAHASDA’s core principles could serve as a national roadmap as U.S. communities face unpredictable and uncertain climate impacts. “We’ve entered an era of untold change, and the path to climate stability is highly uncertain,” said Hagle-Forster, “but no one can sincerely doubt that it runs through an unprecedented expansion of affordable housing.

 

Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022; PD&R Quarterly Update, 22 September 2022. ×

Cold Climate Housing Research Center. 2015. “Sustainable Northern Communities.”  Accessed 21 September 2022. ×

Cold Climate Housing Research Center. n.d. “Anaktuvuk Pass Prototype.” Accessed 4 October 2022. Cold Climate Housing Research Center. 2015. “Sustainable Northern Communities.” Accessed 21 September 2022; Email communication with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022. ×

Suzanna Caldwell. 2016. “New ‘super insulated’ homes rising across Alaska’s North Slope,” Anchorage Daily News, 28 September. Accessed 19 July 2022. ×

Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022; Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022; Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022; Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022; Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

U.S. Department of Energy. n.d. “Heat Pump Systems.” Accessed 4 October 2022; Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022. ×

U.S. Department of Energy. n.d. “Blower Door Tests.” Accessed 4 October 2022. Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022. ×

ENERGY STAR. n.d. “2021–2022 Residential Induction Cooking Tops.” Accessed 27 October 2022. ×

IBM. n.d. “What is a digital twin?” Accessed 1 September 2022.  ×

Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

For an example of a “green addendum,” see: Appraisal Institute. 2018. “A Guide to the Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum.” Accessed 28 October 2022. ×

Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022. Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

Anthony Walters. 2022. National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing Programs.” Accessed 20 October 2022; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Public and Indian Housing. 2022. “Native American Programs.” Accessed 20 October 2022. ×

Email correspondence with Griffin Hagle-Forster, 19 October 2022; Alaska Housing Innovations Summit sessions, August 2022. ×

 
 
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