Shipping and labor costs for building products can quickly ramp up the bill for projects, especially when the destination is as remote as the 61-person town of Atka, Alaska. Located on the fringes of the Aleutian Islands, Atka lies approximately 1,200 air miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska. Yet one resident is preparing to receive a new home, complements of the Living Aleutian Home Design Competition. The winner, Madrid-based experimental architecture collective Taller Abierto (Spanish for “Open Studio”), was tasked with designing a single-family structure to handle the area’s high winds and meet the cultural Aleut design aesthetic while keeping the overall project cost low. Project metrics called for a home of 1,150 square feet to 1,350 square feet with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a total bill no more than $400,000.
“The winning design was culturally relevant, incorporating traditional Aleut aesthetics as well as technical, aerodynamic, and site-specific aspects. Its shape will deal with the wind very effectively,” said Dan Duame, director of the Aleutian Housing Authority, in a release. He notes that the Aleutian Islands often are referred to as the “birthplace of the wind.” The organization hopes to be able to replicate the winning home design across the region.
The home’s modular design looks to emulate traditional Aleutian design while also offering open, accessible interior spaces and a ramp connecting to the exterior. Oriented to face prevailing winds and sunlight, pillars elevate the structure to allow water to follow natural paths down from upper lands. The home’s roof includes micro wind turbines, for which the user can purchase the number of modules required to match the home’s energy load. A geothermal pump will route power for the home’s hot water and underfloor heating system, the latter of which is made of cellulose tiles, wood-certified materials, and other recycled metal elements.
The home is framed with steel and cedar-plywood beams and encased in 95 percent post-consumer-recycled sheet metal to protect against inclement weather. Inside, however, recycled wood fiber board and natural cork surface finishes are incorporated to evoke warmth.
How do the architects plan to reduce building costs? Although the design team opted for value-added building products, it decided to use structural materials that don’t require finish layers and are capable of being exposed as finished surfaces. Labor costs are expected to finish 40 percent shy of the competition budget, largely because of the planned multiple-phase build, which will total 50 days and require four workers. A prefabricated foundation will decrease assembly time while still making sure the home can stand up to harsh weather conditions. The price tag for the project is 13 percent less than that of the average single-family, three-bedroom home built in the region, which usually costs $356,000 to $431,000, 15 percent of which goes toward material and worker transportation.
Designed to meet the Living Building Challenge standards, the project will replace an existing home while determining the feasibility of producing affordable yet sustainable homes in the Aleutian landscape. Given the region’s profile, that’s a steep challenge. Electric power and space heat come through diesel and heating oil shipped in—the latter tagged at $6.80 per gallon and stored in large tank farms—although recent years have seen communities turn toward hydroelectric and wind power. Still, annual precipitation averages 25 inches to 35 inches, and winds often reach 100 miles per hour.