FutureStructure

New Anchorage Housing Development Will Produce More Energy than It Uses

If the architect and designers have their way, the multifamily housing unit will produce more energy than it consumes and use on-site water and sewer reclamation systems.

by Sean Doogan - Alaska Dispatch News / January 21, 2015
Anchorage, Alaska. Photo from Shutterstock

(TNS) Jan. 12--An Alaska design and architectural firm is partnering with a nonprofit housing agency to design and erect a building that gives more than it takes.

The building, planned for 2 acres on Muldoon Road near its intersection with the Glenn Highway, would be home to 20 apartments for low-income families and residents with disabilities. If the architect and designers have their way, the multifamily housing unit will produce more energy than it consumes and use on-site water and sewer reclamation systems.

Nonprofit RurAL CAP runs a housing program called Safe Harbor, providing housing to Anchorage residents with very low incomes. The new ultra energy-efficient units are set to be built next door to an existing 50-unit complex inside the old Ramada Inn on Muldoon Road. Managers there say that without the housing they provide to people who are at least 50 percent below the median income level (about $51,000 per year for a family of four), most of the families would be homeless. Many current Safe Harbor residents were homeless before finding housing with RurAL CAP, according to the agency; dozens more low-income Anchorage families are on a waiting list for affordable housing.

The new structure, which will replace the old How-How restaurant adjoining the current Safe Harbor building and will be RurAL CAP's 16th affordable housing development in Anchorage, might become the first ever energy net-positive, water net-zero building in Alaska. Rents for the units are expected to range from $800 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,200 for a three-bedroom residence.

The design is being done in accordance with a new ultra-green building program called the Living Building Challenge. But the goals -- to use solar and geothermal heat exchangers to create more heat and electricity than is used at the building -- are difficult to achieve in the sub-Arctic, even though many of the design principles used come from Alaska Native traditional knowledge.

"Some of the basic principles indigenous design showed us were things like thermal mass: building very strong envelopes that could keep cold out and warmth in while allowing the building to breathe," said the project's manager and design architect, Jason Gamache of McCool Carlson Green.

Gamache said the building's design will be site specific, much in the same way that Native people used to maintain summer and winter residences, each with their own considerations for weather and area-specific features.

A well, already at the site, has been tested to ensure that there will be enough water flow to supply the building. The ground has been checked to see if it would support a geothermal heat exchange system that can use the few degrees' difference between air and ground temperatures to preheat air going into the building, saving energy.

But many of the hurdles to making the new housing unit ultra energy-efficient may not come from the worksite. Municipal utilities have regulations about using well systems in connection with city sewer services. Other regulations cover how and if a private building can put power back into the main electric grid.

"In some cases, it is not case of local code saying we can't do it -- but it doesn't say we can do it, either," Gamache said.

Without the energy savings expected from the building's design, RurAL CAP estimates it will spend about $50,000 per year for heat, electricity and other utilities.

"For years down the road, if we could have a very low utility cost, then we can put the money in other portions of the building," RurAL CAP Supportive Housing Division manager Kenneth Scollan said. "It will be easier to sustain and have less of a footprint on society."

Current plans call for the building to feature on-site agriculture, with the planting of 12,500 square feet of apple trees, berry bushes and other edible plants. A 1,200-foot-long track for running and cross-country skiing will encircle the property to promote healthy living among its residents.

And while RurAL CAP and the building's designer know that their goals for the building project will be difficult to achieve, they insist that any energy savings ultimately realized in the building -- estimated to cost $4-$6 million -- will mean the design was a success.

"This building is truly a stepping stone for Alaska and its build environment, so if we don't satisfy all of the specific areas, we want other buildings in the future to piggyback from what we have learned in this project," said McCool Carlson Green project assistant Kauai Alpha.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the new project will be RurAL CAP's 16th Safe Harbor development in Anchorage. Not all of the existing RurAL CAP affordable housing facilities are part of the Safe Harbor program.

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