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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.
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.]
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.
“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….’”
“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…..
“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….”
“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….”
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.
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.
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:
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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