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August 25, 2016
Schools in rural Alaska face some of the harshest conditions on earth: below-zero temperatures, wind, snow, driving rain and melting permafrost.
And these villages, home for many Alaska natives, are so remote that there are no roads to the communities. Even planning the delivery of construction materials is a massive undertaking.
Designing these facilities takes a unique approach suited for their unique settings. The addition of a K-12 school is traditionally the largest, most expensive and most important building in the village.
When it comes to designing these schools, multiple factors are considered, including schedule, community involvement, the building’s foundation, energy costs and sustainability. The schools must last 30 to 50 years in an inhospitable environment. Every decision is critical to meeting that goal.
A shipping challenge
A successful project starts with the right schedule.
Since the villages, which typically have 200 to 900 residents, are completely off the road system, all building materials are barged to the construction site. Frequently, barges are loaded in Seattle and shipped directly to the community.
Everything from trusses and toilets to siding and screws must be transported in the short summer shipping window. Once the rivers begin to freeze in September, deliveries end. If the materials aren’t in the village, it could delay construction for an entire year.
In Koliganek (population 209), a recent low-snow winter left the Nushagak River level too low to get the oceangoing barge to the site. The building materials sat 60 miles away. To keep construction on track, all materials were transferred to smaller boats that ran up and down the river for three weeks. Mother Nature complicated the project, but a creative solution allowed construction to proceed unhindered.
The village heart
In urban settings, there are frequently multiple schools and other large government and commercial buildings. In rural Alaska, the school is the main facility. It may be one of just a few nonresidential buildings in the village.
All students in grades kindergarten through 12 attend classes at the school. But the building is much more than a center for education, it is the heart of the community.
A village school is home to weddings, funerals and potlatches. Village elders teach traditional life skills to younger generations. And the community gathers at the school for social events and meetings.
Meeting with community members helps designers create a school that is not only technically, but culturally, appropriate. For example, in Quinhagak (population 699), a 30,000-square-foot addition to the school includes a new gymnasium. The old gym was renovated into a multi-cultural room. Instead of simply covering up the high ceilings, the design makes use of the space and incorporates features that mimic traditional native Alaskan dwellings with a smoke hole.
Weathering climate change
Soil conditions vary widely across Alaska. In some areas, traditional fill is almost nonexistent. In others, global warming is melting permafrost, creating ground that is constantly shifting.
Of five recent major school projects in western Alaska designed by Stantec, only one is built on a traditional slab foundation. Close collaboration between architects, civil and geotechnical engineers is essential for the schools to be on solid footing.
In Kwethluk (population 753), the entire village is at risk of flooding from the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries. To protect the new 45,500-square-foot school, the school is designed to sit on driven piles that put the first floor nearly 11 feet above ground. Discussions with community residents helped influence the final design to keep the school high and dry.
Climate change is directly affecting many of Alaska’s coastal villages. Design decisions are being made with climate change and resiliency in mind.
In the village of Kwigillingok (population 321), the new school is built on a thermopile foundation, a passive system that requires no energy use and protects the permafrost. The thermopiles transfer winter temperatures deep into the soil, freezing the ground around them. The frozen ground keeps the building foundation solid even as summer temperatures rise and some of the icy soil melts. The following winter the process starts again.
Using thermopiles turns the typical Alaska construction schedule on its end. To function properly, the thermopiles were installed mid-winter. Once the ground was fully frozen, the contractors started to build the 16,000-square-foot school addition.
While we don’t know how the climate will have changed in 50 years, as designers we are creating resilient schools now.
Elevator vs. fuel costs
Most people cringe when they see increasing gasoline prices. Imagine if you were budgeting to provide heat, hot water and electricity for a school. And you could expect fuel oil to cost $7 to $8 a gallon, three times what it currently costs in Seattle.
Decisions made during the design phase can help minimize those costs.
For example, in Kwethluk, the design team and the Lower Kuskokwim School District focused on a multi-story design instead of a traditional single-story school that is common in most villages. A second floor requires an ADA-compliant elevator, which added $70,000 to the construction price tag. However, the added expense of the elevator is offset by fuel savings over the life of the school potentially $700,000 or more.
Focus on function
Sustainability is a common design consideration for all new projects.
In rural Alaska, “sustainable” isn’t simply a focus on LEED credits, it’s critical to the everyday function of the building. While green-building principles are often applied to the design, day-to-day functionality in harsh conditions is paramount. Currently, rainwater harvesting and heat recovery are two sustainable methods being implemented in the villages.
Kwigillingok is on the western coast of Alaska, on the banks of the Kwigillingok River and surrounded by marshes. Despite all the nearby water, there was no water utility service to the old school.
The old school pulled water from ponds near the site, but the quality and availability was unreliable. The new school includes full water and wastewater treatment facilities.
Additionally, rainwater is collected off 6,000 square feet of specially coated metal roofing. It is stored in a 500-gallon cistern inside the building where it is partially filtered prior to joining the school’s treatment system.
In New Stuyahok (population 529), the new school was built in 2007, but just recently a secondary project was completed that will help reduce the school’s heating bill. The project, 12 years in the planning, uses heat recovery from the community’s diesel-fueled electric generators to heat the school.
The new school and the community generator locations were intentionally selected years ago during concept planning. Waste heat from the generators’ cooling system is piped underground and connected via heat exchangers to the school’s heating system. When the system comes online this year, school officials anticipate saving $50,000 to $60,000 annually at current fuel prices.
Educators are tasked with the formidable challenge of teaching the next generation. As designers, we are challenged to help create the best physical environment for education. When that environment is in rugged, rural Alaska it takes a unique approach for a most unique land!
Dale Smythe is a lifelong Alaskan and a senior architect at Stantec. He is the project manager on all of the school projects mentioned.