By Molly Rettig
In June 2020, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) expanded from its sunny campus in the foothills of Golden, Colorado, to the frozen tundra of Fairbanks, Alaska, by adding the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) to its team.
“They brought 20 years of unrivaled experience in sustainable housing in extreme climates,” said NREL Director Martin Keller. “At the same time, their expertise expanded our sense of cultural appropriateness by honoring thousands of years of tradition and keeping our partnerships focused on energy equity for local communities.”
The inaugural year saw several notable collaborations, including a project to create affordable prefabricated housing, advice on improvements to military housing, and construction of demonstration homes in marginalized communities.
Affordable Housing in Alaska and Beyond
This July, CCHRC building researchers will load a 20-foot shipping container outfitted with a kitchen, bathroom, and mechanical room onto a barge headed for Unalakleet, a largely Inupiaq village perched on the Bering Sea. After a three-week journey around the long tail of the Aleutian Islands and up Alaska’s western coast, crews will hoist the fully plumbed container from the barge with a boom truck, drag it down a series of gravel roads etched into the tundra, and place it inside a newly framed home.
This home will provide healthy, modern amenities for a family that has spent many years in overcrowded conditions. Further, combining prefabricated components such as the kitchen-bathroom container with site-built components could begin to address the shortage of affordable housing in Alaska.
“Unalakleet is a great example of listening to a community to make sure technology meets their needs,” said CCHRC Regional Director Bruno Grunau. “The village council told us they needed affordable housing for their elders and young people, but they also needed jobs. So we built the most expensive parts of the home in the lab, while leaving the rest of the home to be constructed by local workers. It’s not just a house, it’s an engine for the local economy.”
Thinking beyond one village, researchers are asking how modular technology might transform the nation. NREL’s Fairbanks and Colorado teams are working together to investigate the ways in which building homes (or parts of homes) in factories with standard, repeatable processes can both improve performance and lower costs, similar to the way the assembly line transformed automobile manufacturing a century ago, leading to a car in almost every driveway. In theory, such construction could produce millions of homes needed across the nation.
At the same time, building engineers and designers must solve the problem of how to make them affordable without compromising on performance. That is where CCHRC’s experience comes in, noted NREL Engineer Stacey Rothgeb.
“CCHRC is waist-deep in affordability,” she said. “Because Alaskans live in an extreme climate, they are doing this work on the front lines. That’s really important to us.”
Another innovation taking shape in the Fairbanks lab is called Adaptable, a kit home that packages high-efficiency building technologies into a simple panelized system. Adaptable can be customized and ordered online, like an IKEA closet, then shipped in flat-pack containers and assembled on-site.
“Think of the way Legos fit together — you can mix and match different pieces — but in this case you have superinsulated vacuum panels, solar panels, and other future technologies,” Grunau said.
With support from a Department of Energy Advanced Building Construction grant, CCHRC is assembling the components that would ensure not just a sustainable building, but one that also reflects a family’s lifestyle, with the ability to accommodate a mudroom, a workshop, or even a space for processing subsistence foods.
Additionally, with a Department of Agriculture Wood Innovation grant that NREL and CCHRC recently won, researchers are exploring ways to incorporate low-value timber, often left to rot on the forest floor, into a structural frame for Adaptable. In doing so, they are connecting the dots of the circular economy.
Military and International Work
The military families that move around the country must adapt quickly to new environments. Nowhere is this more true than in Alaska. For the 20,000 active military personnel based in the 49th state, one of the most important elements of success is a warm, healthy home.
“There are a lot of dynamics that occur within buildings in an extreme environment like Alaska, even though you don’t always see them,” said Jack Hébert, a senior advisor at NREL who founded CCHRC more than 20 years ago to address just these issues. “Poor building science leads to a cold, uncomfortable building that affects our health, our performance, and our happiness.”
To ensure safe and comfortable housing at Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks, CCHRC is advising military planners on retrofit strategies that would improve efficiency without compromising indoor air quality. Reducing energy costs not only frees up money for mission-critical work but also improves quality of life for U.S. servicemen and servicewomen in cold climates.
Coupled with energy retrofits, engineers are also investigating how air-source heat pumps could offset diesel consumption at Fort Wainwright and other cold places. Because air-source heat pumps rely on “heat” from the outside air to run a refrigeration cycle (just like your refrigerator absorbs “heat” from the items inside it), these pumps have not been widely used in extremely cold climates. With hardier models now hitting the market, CCHRC is tackling performance challenges such as icing that can form on the evaporator. Solving these challenges means air-source heat pumps could replace traditional heating systems like oil boilers or gas furnaces, not just in Alaska but across the north.
While NREL laboratories build technology for the future, social scientists are studying the impact of culture on these technologies. CCHRC is currently looking at community attitudes toward past building designs in rural Alaska, such as modular buildings that cropped up in villages and oil camps in the 1960s and ‘70s. Working hand in hand with communities and designers, we are learning from the past to make sure new building and energy systems emphasize local traditions, resources, and workforces.
A Just Energy Transition
A future powered by clean energy is the vision of NREL and its newest center, CCHRC. Part of getting there is identifying disparities within the current energy system. CCHRC’s deep experience working with Indigenous and frontline communities furthers NREL’s goals of achieving energy justice for all.
On the edge of the Arctic, NREL’s northern laboratory has a front row seat to climate change. Warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, many Alaska villages are already losing their homes, schools, and subsistence lands to erosion and thawing permafrost. CCHRC has worked for more than a decade to develop sustainable housing and infrastructure so that villages can adapt to this change, while helping others relocate entirely.
For example, CCHRC designed energy-efficient, durable homes for Mertarvik, a Yup’ik village driven to higher ground by coastal erosion—and helped oversee construction of 13 new homes in 2019. Now NREL is developing an Arctic Strategy to establish its long-term energy priorities, with Arctic voices at the center.
“This isn’t about observing climate change from the outside. Alaskans and northern people are living the climate transition,” said Arctic Strategic Program Manager Sherry Stout. “The goal of the Arctic Strategy is to help Arctic peoples meet their energy and housing goals in this changing environment, and do it in a way that minimizes the impacts to traditional ways of life.”
The partnership will continue to expand. As Keller noted, “Though thousands of miles away, our people at CCHRC have blended in with NREL and enriched us all.” This new combination of CCHRC and NREL means a deepening focus on energy equity as researchers push for a clean energy transition that leaves no one behind.
Learn more about NREL’s cold climate housing and buildings research.
Article and images courtesy of NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy.
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