It takes a village: Students design live-in experiment

A row of solar panels next to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center Research and Testing Facility. More panels might be added to power a proposed sustainable housing experiment in the wetland forest across the street, Aug. 26, 2011. Kelsey Gobroski/Sun Star

A row of solar panels next to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center Research and Testing Facility. More panels might be added to power a proposed sustainable housing experiment in the wetland forest across the street, Aug. 26, 2011. Kelsey Gobroski/Sun Star

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
August 30, 2011

Your life is an experiment. You’re starting the fall semester at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks (UAF) and you live with a group other students in a wetland forest. You step outside on a boardwalk above a green sea of horsetail. Your housemates are behind you, running a regular check on how much energy your house has pulled from nearby solar panels. You think about walking to the communal gardens. It’s September 2012.

Currently the usual campus housing options range from the “shoeboxes” of Skarland’s singles to the spacious Cutler Apartments. Next year, a select group of students will break away from these typical dormitories to donate their domestic lives to research. UAF students will compete to design the “Sustainable Village” this fall.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) Research and Testing Facility is a yellow building visible from Thompson Drive. The private enterprise researches and implements alternative, efficient housing options in rural and urban Alaska. CCHRC president Jack Hébert’s office overlooks the proposed Sustainable Village site.

Being sustainable, the buildings will be designed to have as little impact as possible on the surrounding habitat and imported resources. “Everything we want to do over there, we would do gently,” Jack Hébert said.

The CCHRC is a forerunner in northern architecture research. At first glance, it seems like the center wouldn’t need help getting this sort of project off the ground. Why partner with students?

“Because it’s going to be your world,” Jack Hébert said. “It was always thought to be something we would want the students involved in,” he said.

This semester, all UAF students can compete to design the Village. Teams need at least three people in different disciplines, a mentor, a couple of posters and a written plan. Registration for the competition runs through September, and contestants can submit entries until Oct. 14. The university will announce winners Oct. 21.

To freshman Alexander Bergman and his teammates, the Village is a puzzle. All the construction elements – energy, insulation, water, and so on – need to fit snugly together before they can think about the overall aesthetics of the place, he said.

The Sustainable Village is the university’s response to a larger movement to involve students in the architecture of tomorrow.

Heidi Konttinen left her industrial design studies in Finland to work on her fine arts minor at UAF. She’ll help CCHRC incorporate all the design entries into a final product.When she first came in 2009 the lack of recycling and green architecture in Fairbanks contrasted with what she was used to in Finland, but now campus is abuzz with talk of sustainability, she said. “The university has taken a huge step,” she said.

The Office of Sustainability will complement the competition with an architectural science seminar series running from Sept. 17 to Oct. 15. Each session, community professionals will lecture about the basics of sustainable construction. The course is open to everyone, but the seminars also allow students can earn credit hours from the competition.

Michele Hébert, Office of Sustainability director, entered the University-CCHRC planning process a couple months ago. This will be the first time husband-and-wife Jack and Michele Hébert will work together on a university project.

All entries have a chance at having their ideas incorporated in the final design, but the winning team will lend their voice in the final planning stages. The winners will also represent UAF at the 2012 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference next fall.

Normally, CCHRC deals with designing homes in rural communities, such as Anaktuvuk Pass. That outreach guides Alaskans into sustainable living, but the new buildings are pretty remote. The Village allows the center to test its research in its backyard.

The successes and failures of the first cluster of homes allow the research to breathe and grow, eventually thrusting the Village into a new phase of home construction. The ideal resident must be willing to conduct research and committed to pulling the campus sustainability movement forward, Michele Hébert said.

The Village will also offset the tight housing situation on campus, Chancellor Brian Rogers said. About four prototype houses could hold 16 to 40 students in the first group of homes slated for 2012, according to a preliminary design concept document.  That cluster could cost $1.1 million. Student rent of about $640/month could pay off the buildings and their utilities.

The project’s biggest goal is to show the feasibility of sustainability in Fairbanks — and to set an example.

“This will be a catalyst for initiating change on campus,” Michele Hébert said.

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