LIVE image
Orca house was a top finisher in a design compeition for Aleutian natives, thanks in part to cultural research.
Rendering: David Munford

This is the story of a design competition, the goal of which was to design an affordable, replicable, sustainable and inspiring home for a family in Atka, an island in the Aleutian Islands chain in Alaska. Competitor teams were to make the house compliant with the Living Building Challenge.

The information we were given about Atka in the competition brief described the climate (wind, rain, and fog), the cost burdens of freight and fuel, and provided a brief description of the inhabitants, the majority of whom are Unangan native people who have inhabited the islands for at least 9,000 years as hunters and fishermen. The competition was open to design teams internationally and was adjudicated a year ago.

Freight costs? How about cultural freight?

Our team’s initial reaction to the challenge centered on worry about how freight costs to the island would impact affordability and what opportunities and constraints the weather posed to energy generation and water harvesting. The LBC requires that a building be 100% self-sufficient in both energy and water; both must be “net-zero” or better.

We went around the group introducing ourselves and explaining what drew us to this competition. There was the lead architect, a landscape architect, a draftsman/artist, a biomimicry specialist, a structural engineer, a lighting consultant, a purchasing expert, a project manager, a web graphics techie, an energy consultant/passive house expert, and a sustainable building consultant—your typical sustainable design team.

Our landscape architect had also brought along a friend who she thought might be helpful to the effort, a Ph.D. linguist who has also worked as an anthropologist and had lived and worked  in Alaska for many years before returning to New York. “Dr. Mary” offered to be the liaison to the Atka community and to get the team’s questions answered about conditions on the ground. [Editor's note: The anthropologist chose not to be named in this account.]

A fortuitous decision

This fortuitous decision by our RLA to bring her friend to the project proved invaluable to our work and caused us not only to develop a much superior design but to fundamentally change the approach to the design process. It also upended the questions that our sustainable design team would ask ourselves as we proceeded through the conceptual and schematic design phases. Perhaps most importantly, it caused us to realize that, even though the judge and audience for our design was to be a group of architects and sustainability professionals, if we wanted to truly serve the population of the Islands who might have to live in the “replicable” home we were to design, we would have to take on an additional challenge on top of the already exacting parameters of the competition. We would have to strive to honor the Unangan people’s lifestyle and fully understand their concept of what a good shelter means, integrating that knowledge into the design. What we didn’t first understand was how radically this would alter our approach to the project. This is the story of the unexpected facets of that journey.

Dr. Mary eagerly offered to make a call to the Atka Village Council in order to establish a contact with the community and provided us with a description of the characteristics that an Aleut would want in a home. She simultaneously began to demolish the assumptions that our team of Lower 48ers had been holding based on our experience of living in a home in the Northeast.

The Atka community
Photo: Deborah Mercy, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, UAF

Rustic interiors? No.

“So, these are subsistence hunters and fishermen. The interiors will be very rustic then?”

“No, actually. They all have the Internet and see what houses are like in the rest of the States. They’ll want a modern house with very modern appliances, like out of Shelter magazine.”

“Oh, hmmm, that’s different than the impression we got from the competition materials….’”

A large cistern? Not going to happen

“We’ll need to collect rainwater to conform to the LBC standard. So, we’ll need a sizeable cistern to hold enough water to get through the drier months.”

“You might not be able to get it onto the island. The only way materials get to Atka is by plane and by barge. If your cistern is larger than a pallet or flat pack, it’s not at all certain that they have the equipment at the port to get it off the boat or to transport it to the site.”

“Oh my. I was counting on that cistern….we’ll have to rethink this then…..

Anyone got a drilling rig?

“We need a water source besides rain. Can’t we just dig a well?”

“No. They don’t have wells on the Islands. They store water in rain barrels. And there’s no drilling rig on the islands to dig a well. You’d have to get a rig to the island.”

“Ooops. OK, that’s not going to work….”

Accommodating visitors

“Well, about the bathroom?   It needs to be ADA compliant to meet the competition requirements. Wouldn’t it be nice to have two sinks – his and hers?”

“Actually, what you want is a separated half-bath and a shower/bath/sink area. When families visit, because the only way home is by boat and that may only run every week, they stay for extended periods. They’ll sleep on the living room floor, but you want visitors to be able to wash their hands, use the toilet and take a shower without intruding on each other. Separate facilities will be really appreciated.”

“OK, then – one more thing to rethink. Back to the drawing board….”

Sustainable agriculture, meet rats

Dr. Mary took a list of questions from our team and wrote up the several interviews she conducted with the contact she made in Atka, the Village Council President. Some of the other significant changes to our design due to this trove of cultural and community fact-finding are listed next.

We were supposed to dedicate a good portion (35%) of the project area to urban agriculture. Not only is this an Living Building Challenge imperative but, theoretically, it would help the Aleuts (Unangan people) to augment their fish/game based diet and counter some of the illnesses which are exacerbated by vitamin deficiencies and unhealthy imported modern eating habits.

What we learned, however, was that the island is overrun by rats. Rats! The Russian fur traders had introduced this invasive species in the early 1800s and the U.S. military had exacerbated the invasion during World War II. The rodents now are decimating the local native seabird population which relies on the local grasslands for nesting habitat. They also make outside agriculture into a fool’s undertaking because they will destroy any crops left in the open.

If we wanted to include an agricultural station, it would have to be inside in a rat-proof location.

Atka from afar
Photo: Steve Ebbert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Aleutian porch

The Aleuts like to have a “porch”, but not the porch our team thinks of where we sit on a hot New York summer’s day, our barbeques smoking away. The Aleut house “porch” is an unconditioned, sheltered entryway, out of the brutal and constant winds, where you throw off your hunting or fishing equipment, store your gear and clean your catch before you store it in the chest freezer. It is a bridge between the outside environment and the inside living space. You want to have storage, a chest freezer, a work area with a hose bib and drain, and very good boot mats throughout. There’s no fire pit or sitting around on this porch.

We wanted to use local gravel (since it’s an island, after all) for our bioswale, blackwater filtration system and for pathways. Bu it turns out there is no gravel on the island. There is a lot of sand. You want gravel? Pay the freight costs to get it there.

We were going to create a sheltered area for ATV parking and cleaning. There were two problems here. First, we couldn’t call it a porch because that might cause confusion with the other “porch”. We called it a “deckway.”

Secondly, Dr. Mary said not to bother. Everyone parks outside and no one washes their ATVs in this climate. Nature takes care of it.

We kept the deckway but only for its function as a covered entry location for people.

It would have been easy to miss the mark

And so it went at every project meeting. There was not a single meeting where some assumption about the amenities one should offer or how we could get things done did not have to be put aside. The final house design, after all the “ah hah” moments and redirection, is one that we are all extremely proud of. Not only does it meet and exceed all the competition requirements and is truly sustainable, but we know that it is a design that fits the place it is meant to inhabit. On the final review with our Atka contact, we were told that the residents would be “delighted” by the package we were developing.

What so impressed me about this experience, as a sustainable building advisor and project manager, is how easily we might have missed the mark had we not so fortuitously added a culture expert to our team. It would have been so understandable to forge ahead with a deep-green design that did not have separated bathroom facilities, modern-enough appliances and finishes, the porch, or the open connection between the kitchen and the living space. Yet these are all requisite in a good, functional, well-suited house in the Aleutian fishing communities.

It would have been completely reasonable to have missed the rat invasion problem or to have added a lovely outdoor deck for sitting and cooking that would never be used in this locale. All we would have had to do was concentrate only on the competition boundaries—strict Living Building Challenge compliance, budget, replicability, energy efficiency and an attractive design. Habitability and health would have been addressed but true functional fit as determined by local mores and needs would have been extremely easy to neglect.

The other critical conclusion or, more accurately, reminder, that I drew from this experience is that, even when you are following a wonderfully thoughtful, progressive and rigorous standard like the Living Building Challenge, you must still:

  • question assumptions—yours and those in the standard,
  • always think independently;
  • and you must connect with realities—the realities of the site, of the intended inhabitants and of the culture in which they live.

Perhaps there is a whole new field, call it “anthrotecture” or “culture-fit-design,” that includes an anthropologist, ethnographer or sociologist in the early design phases to ensure that, however clever and sustainable the design might be, it also ensures a building that is a good fit for the intended inhabitants. This may be especially valuable when the design team is not of the same cultural background as the end-client and when designing for indigenous peoples.

Editor's note: Led by Janus Welton, AIA, of EcoArchitecture DesignWorks, the team's  “Orca House” was one of the top finishers in the design competition. Guest author Gail Beverly, LEED Green Associate, CSBA, GRP was project manager. Welton is now developing these insights into what she describes as a "prefab net zero energy + water home for the Northeast 'native.'"

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1 Great piece posted by Dan Kolbert on 04/03/2013 at 10:43 pm

I've been thinking recently that, after we get some better basic data on energy consumption patterns from meters and dashboards, the next step will be to get the sociologists and anthropologists involved to do some larger studies of living and consumption habits.  This article is a great example of why it's important not to pretend that there's some normative living standard.

2 Reply to Dan Kolbert posted by Gail Beverly on 04/08/2013 at 02:03 pm

Hi Dan:  Glad you enjoyed the article.  All the good intentions of the green building standards aside (and I am glad they exist to push us in the right direction), I think that design teams can get sidetracked by blind adherence to the standard, as our story shows.   I love your idea of linking with the other disciplines to provide broader studies.  One other very interesting experience I've had is with a technically brilliant design/builder who has built some very high functioning plus-zero houses near here.  What he has missed is that most residents will not have the technical acumen or interest to monitor and adjust the mechanicals to optimize the homes' energy systems.   This can lead to discontent, dissappointment and the house not performing well.   It's also a missed opportunity to sell a service contract with every home.  Again, it's a real understanding of the human element on the ground that's needed.

3 Great Article posted by Shraddha Marathe on 04/08/2013 at 10:50 am

This is a great article. It reminds me of my life back in Mumbai, India, where cultural, economical and social influence almost always demands a custom twist on the conventional systems and processes one would assume.

4 Reply to Shraddha Marathe posted by Gail Beverly on 04/08/2013 at 02:10 pm

Thank you, Shraddha.   Yours sounds like a very interesting experiential background!  This project reminded me of the importance of checking assumptions throughout.  I think the whole team felt that way.

5 Anthropologist on the Design Team: The Making of An Unangan Home posted by Peter Papesch on 04/08/2013 at 10:59 am

Congratulations on describing the team's inspiring learning process as they started to define all components of the design problem before setting out to solve for each such parameter.

One quibble about the picture: that windmill so close to the ground is likely to be more or less useless - winds' power increases with speed, which in turn requires the windmill's blades to be higher up and also not impeded behind the windmill by the new house - so in addition to an anthropologist we'll have to look for a competitive sailor to explain what wind does and how it acts, or an engineer trained in fluid mechanics. ;-)

Great work in any case!




6 Typical Design Team? posted by Robert Riversong on 04/08/2013 at 12:35 pm

How many Aleuts does it take to design a house? If the answer is a twelve-person professional team, then I question the starting point for affordability. It also sounds as if the "anthropologist" was acting mostly as a liason to a very modernized indigenous community which has already largely lost touch with the truly sustainable lifestyle that allowed them to populate that land for 9,000 years, rather than as a consultant helping to bring indigenous (rather than assimilation) values into the process.

7 Reply to Robert Riversong posted by Gail Beverly on 04/08/2013 at 03:10 pm

Hi Robert:  Perhaps a little more context would be of use here.   The house was being designed as part of an international design contest sponsored by the Cascadia Green Building Council and the Aleutian Building Authority.   The goal was to bring progressive green building methodologies to the Aleutian Island indigenous communities in a way that addresses some of the current housing development challenges in that region.   The competition brief can be found at .  The brief describes how it can cost more than S400,000.00 to build what is essentially a box on stilts because of freight and labor costs.   There's no fuel on the islands so it's all got to be shipped or flown in, another huge expense of the "modern" lifestyle.   And, although I'm neither a sociologist, anthropologist or ethnologist myself, I can say with fairly high confidence that the islanders do prefer a more modern lifestyle than that of subsistence fishing and hunting that characterized existence in prior millenia.  Their fishing vessels are very modern and the fish processing plants on the island are also modern and they want their houses to be modern.  The challenge the competition posed was how to also make them green, affordable, replicable, and energy and water self-sufficient.   The design elements that our team became aware of due to our anthropologist teammate were in how also to incorporate the realities of today's indigenous people's lifestyle into the house design.  These are very different than the realities of other people's and we were glad to discover this perspective.   For, just as if we'd designed a purely green house that was ill-suited to the Aleutian lifestyle, it would have been equally bad to design a house that was too retrograde.   It was not our goal to address the point you bring up about assimilation values, but to respect the intended residents how they are today.  This project did cause our team to become more educated on the many destructive changes that have been visited on the Unangan people and the Aleutian Islands over the last 300-400 years.    I think this was one of the things that influenced our desire to be sensitive to the wishes of the people who live there still today.  


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