Climate change has brought a myriad of issues to the far north, but rising sea levels are now threatening existing home owners and contributing to housing shortages
March 15, 2016 — In the spring, after the permafrost thaws and the ground settles, Wilson Andrew Sr takes a wrench to the metal pilings that hold up the foundation of his house in Atmautluak, Alaska, and makes it level again. He cranks the screws until the foundation flattens out, level with the ground. At least for now.
Andrew’s house, on a small island traditionally inhabited by indigenous Alaskans, is a prototype modular home designed by the Fairbanks-based nonprofit Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) to be resistant to harsh weather and a quickly changing climate, while still being affordable and easy to build.
These are the challenges of housing design in the far north, where seasonal variability is exacerbated by climate change – like the heave and twitch of permafrost and the slow creep landward of the edge of the sea ice – adds to the challenge of building in an already brutal environment. Pipes freeze, walls molder. It can be prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, to get labor and supplies, which has led to a huge shortage of housing. And then there’s the social challenge associated with providing permanent housing for population groups that have been living nomadic subsistence lifestyles for generations.
This winter, both January and February brought record low coverage of arctic sea ice. And, as the ice surface contracts, so does the oil money that funds many northern communities. Populations are increasing in places like Iqaluit, Canada, and towns like Newtok, Alaska need to be moved to avoid falling into the sea as the ice recedes. So city planners, architects, and tribal groups, in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, from Newtok to Nunuvut, are trying to answer the question of how to live in the changing north, and how to do it now. It’s a technical, cultural, financial and environmental puzzle. And as the Arctic warms faster than predicted, it’s becoming increasingly urgent.
There are 40 different indigenous groups that live within the Arctic Circle, from the Inuit to the Saami in Finland and Norway. For millenia, most of these groups were semi-nomadic, moving to hunt or fish, tracking the edge of the sea ice. It’s only in the last half a decade that more permanent structures have become part of the Arctic infrastructure, and they haven’t settled particularly well. Part of learning to design for a changing Arctic is amending what’s already been done.
Molly Rettig, communications coordinator at CCHRC, explains that the federal government made a big effort to develop the Alaskan tundra in the 70s and 80s. Awarding contracts to the lowest bidder, the government’s housing push resulted in “cookie cutter pre-fab houses that look like they should be in Texas or North Carolina”, she says. “That means they’re not designed for permafrost. The houses have no eaves, and there’s no building envelope, so they’re falling apart and rotting, battered by storms and snow and wind. Plus, these are subsistence people, and there’s no space built in for skins or for working on snow machines.” She says it’s typical of government funding in these parts: “These agencies parachute in and say, ‘We’re going to give you plumbing’, and then the pipes freeze. They’re not engaged with it at all.”
To design for the culture and climate, and to build in sustainable ways, CCHRC tries to meld building practices that have worked in the Arctic for centuries with technology and technique that can make structures affordable and easy to build in remote villages. “We try to flip it around and ask what their traditional housing was like,” Rettig says. “Fifty years ago they were in sod huts or skin tents, and you’ll still see the ruins of sod igloos around, so we try to use the pieces of that design and architecture that worked and that you could mimic.”
They’ve designed houses with super-insulated walls to imitate traditional sod, and built composting, waterless toilets that dry out waste so it can be burned for heat – crucial in places where sewers don’t make sense and sky-high fuel costs account for much of household spending. This spring, in Newtok, the nonprofit is working on a prototype house built on skis, so it can be towed across the tundra as the ocean encroaches.
But environmentally appropriate design is only part of the process. In environmentally risky locations it can be hard to get funding and impossible to get insurance. Just getting building materials to towns on the tundra can account for a significant portion of the building cost.
“The building season is short, especially for communities off the road system, which is 80% of communities in Alaska,” Rettig says. “We have to barge materials in, so by July you have to be ready. If you forget something you’re waiting another year.”
To get around this, CCHRC designs houses as easy-to-assemble kits that a crew of six relatively untrained carpenters can build it in eight weeks.
In Atmautluak, population 277, CCHRC required Andrew to participate in the construction of his new house, in hopes that the process would also educate the community in how to construct more sustainable structures.
There is both a lack of housing and a lack of jobs in far northern aboriginal communities, which leads to overcrowding and hidden homelessness. Traditional practices, like hunting, have been physically squeezed out, setting off a cultural disconnect and a lack of food and supplies. “They’ve been in that area for thousands of years, but they’ve never had that permanent infrastructure. We came in, changed culture and changed land, and now it’s falling apart,” Rettig says.
A group of architects at the Toronto-based firm Lateral is approaching design in the far north from the perspective of sustaining and preserving culture. “For years we imported southern models of planning, food, education, just about everything,” says Lola Sheppard, a partner at Lateral. “That’s has failed dramatically in almost every sense, technologically and culturally, so we need to reimagine how we design in the north.”
Lateral has been working on a project called Arctic Adaptations, which tries to find design-based solutions to issues like overcrowding and the degredation of traditional hunting grounds. She says there have been huge failures in designing for northern climates because architects and planners haven’t taken culture into account. “We’re looking at how people move, how people hunt, how healthcare is provided, as well as the size of families and how they share food,” Sheppard says. “We want to look at how architecture can be a tool for cultural empowerment.”
They’ve designed a network of food storage hubs, and they’re working on ways to make buildings multifunctional, like a caribou research station that also serves as a shelter for hunters.
The research is important for future design, but there’s also a need for immediate solutions. In Iqaluit, Nunavut, the capitol of Canada’s newest province, Mélodie Simard, the director of planning and development, is struggling to find land to build housing for the city’s burgeoning population. Located on the south coast of Baffin Island, Nunuvut is only 17 years old, but the government center now offers public services and a chance for employment.
Historically a fishing camp, Iqaluit is facing growing pains as aboriginal people, both from smaller more remote communities in Nunuvut and from the south, arrive for jobs in the growing economy. According to the Standards Council of Canada, in the Northwest Territories alone, estimates suggest it could cost as much as $230m to adapt existing buildings, or more than $5,000 for each of the 7,000 residents.
Simard says they want to build a new, 500-unit housing development, and that they’re working within newly adapted infrastructure standards that were put in place to address climate change, but that she’s struggling to find both land and capital. “Right now my focus is trying to address the housing crisis. Our rental price is very, very, very steep,” she says. “We’re trying to make more land available as soon as possible within our constraints.”
Iqaluit has developed a sustainability plan to reflect the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or the Inuit way of life, and the new housing development is built accordingly. To soak up maximum light and heat from the sun, all the houses face the south, regardless of their orientation to the street. Thermosyphons, low-tech heat pumps have been installed into the foundations, to draw heat out of the land to keep the permafrost cold and less likely to move.
Across northern latitudes, environmental changes are increasingly forcing communities to adapt more quickly than expected. In Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, the land under the town has started to collapse due to mining. The town is slowly being rebuilt three kilometers away, and planners and architects are being more conscious of the community’s environment and the cultural context. The contractors are building around traditional reindeer herding grounds, instead of through them, and the new structures are ultra insulated and designed to harvest heat and shed wind. It hasn’t been cheap, but they’ve managed to find a way to adapt.
Rettig says there are some solutions coming out of Alaska, too. In the coastal city of Bethel, where they predict needing 2,000 homes in the next 10 years, the community has started a small-scale logging industry, reducing housing costs, and built a truss plant, creating both jobs and houses.
“Everyone keeps saying the next few years are going to be really telling,” Rettig says. “We are at a major pivot point: is this culture is going to keep going or disappear?”