Category Archives: Building Structure

Your ventilation system is key to indoor quality


By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: I had an energy rating performed on my home, and it said my house does not have enough ventilation air for acceptable indoor air quality. What does that mean and what are my options?

As part of the energy rating, the rater conducts a blower door test to depressurize the house. This test uses a large, calibrated fan to determine how much air is leaking in and out of the house. If this leakage rate falls below a certain range, the energy report will contain a cautionary statement warning the homeowner that the home is too “tight.” This may result in poor indoor air quality unless the building has mechanical ventilation. All homes must be able supply a specific number of air exchanges per hour in order to meet state and national standards for air quality. The required volume of fresh air is determined using a calculation that factors in house size and number of occupants. A tight home can suffer from a variety of ailments, such as moisture build-up and mold growth. Not all air quality issues are this obvious, however. For example, if combustion appliances such as propane ovens aren’t operating properly, or if car exhaust is drawn into the house from an attached garage, then low levels of carbon monoxide can linger in the living quarters for extended periods. These levels are often too low to register on a carbon monoxide detector, but over time can have a negative effect on occupant health. Air quality issues can also arise from off-gassing of building products such as new carpets and solvent-based finishes.

Animal dander, dust mites and chemicals released by household cleaners can also contribute to poor air quality.

Today, most building codes require some form of mechanical ventilation.

This can range from an appropriately-sized exhaust fan operating in conjunction with fresh air inlets installed in the living spaces to a Heat Recovery Ventilation System (HRV).

Regardless of which type of system is used, it must be sized and installed to meet the needs of the home it will be serving.

A healthy, efficient house must perform a balancing act between cost and indoor air quality. This means that the ventilation system has to supply enough fresh air to meet occupant needs, while at the same time minimizing the energy penalties associated with over ventilating.

Q: Who determines building code and how is it changed?

At this point, the most predominant residential code used in the United States is produced by the International Code Council (ICC), although some municipalities opt to use codes from other sources.

The ICC produces the International Residential Code (IRC) which is updated every three years. The city of Fairbanks building officials uses the 2006 IRC book, but will soon be adopting 2009 codes.

Because this is a national code, it does not perfectly meet the needs of every individual region, so it is up to the local jurisdiction to establish appropriate exceptions. For each code cycle, our local Building Code Review and Appeals Commission makes amendments to the IRC in order to adapt it to Fairbanks. This commission is comprised of contractors, engineers, architects, and local code officials. As an example, the Commission has increased the snow load requirements to better reflect conditions in Fairbanks. All the amendments are available at the building department and online on the city of Fairbanks website at Outside the city of Fairbanks, no code is enforced unless the lending agency requires it. However, building codes exists to insure that a minimum standard of occupant health and safety is met. It is worth noting that if a house is not built to meet local codes it can be difficult to sell.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, e-mail us at can also call the CCHRC at (907) 457-3454.

Make home repairs now while weather is good


By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: I want to inspect my home this summer, just in case there are any repairs I should make.

What kind of things do I want to look at?

The parts of your home that have moving parts or are exposed to hot or cold are most likely to need maintenance.

To begin, inspect your windows to make sure they open and close properly and seal well. Look at door and window hinges and related gasket seals and check for any condensation or breakage between your window panes. Inspect your chimney, which will prevent potential stack fires and will also improve efficiency. Especially inspect where your chimney goes through your attic and roof.

Have your boiler or furnace inspected for proper functioning and change your fuel filter if you use oil heat. Replace any air filters, including those in your heat recovery ventilator.

Check to see if your foundation exhibits any signs of cracking or movement, which is a sign of shifting soil or settling. Look at the exterior walls and roof of your home for any deteriorating siding or roofing. Fading, peeling paint or corroding roof tiles are an indication you may need to replace roofing, or treat or paint your home.

Inspect your attic and crawlspace for problems, especially moisture. Have your septic tank pumped. Add salt to your water softener and change water filters. Replace batteries in your smoke alarms and CO2 sensors and make sure both are working properly.

Remember it is easier to make repairs such as these in the summer than in the winter. Putting off home maintenance is tempting to do on a bright sunny day, but you may pay for it later with time, money and convenience.

Can I break my wind turbine or overload the system?

The Fairbanks area does not often get extremely strong winds, so overburdening a wind turbine system is unlikely.

Wherever you live, you want to be sure your turbine is properly sized. Do not settle for an inexpensive turbine and hope for the best — purchase a durable model rated for those conditions.

When shopping for your system, note that some are designed to cope with irregular conditions.

If the turbine is connected to the power grid it will put power onto the grid and not overload. Some systems will even shut down to avoid problems from extreme high winds. No matter the situation, consult with a professional before you begin any wind project, make sure to choose the right turbine for your area and perform regular maintenance as specified by the manufacturer.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, e-mail us at can also call the CCHRC at (907) 457-3454.

Barnette Magnet School students win national award for green school design

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Monday, May 17, 2010:

The school of the future is a net-zero-energy building with three triangular wings, a solar array, green roof, spherical dome and astronomy aqua-tower, all straddling a river. And it resides in Fairbanks.

SubZero Middle School is a futuristic model designed by 10 students from Barnette Magnet Middle School. On April 30, the group won first place and a $2,000 prize for Barnette in the nationwide School of the Future competition in Washington, D.C. The class spent a week in D.C. in late April, competing against seven other finalists and presenting its project before 20 judges.

“I’m most proud of it because it’s not some far-fetched idea. It’s very realistic,” said Eliza Lawler, who took a feeder guppy to Washington to stock the mockup of the Chena River.

“You get a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds together, and it’s amazing. It’s unbridled imagination,” said local architect Steve Keller, who helped students with the project and accompanied them to D.C. “They’re thinking like adults, but they don’t have the constraints that full-grown adults have.”

Click here to read the full story.

Wash, rinse, dethaw … repeat?

Ask A Builder

By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: I am going to dig up my foundation this summer so I can put on outside foam insulation.

Do I need to clean off my foundation in any way?

How far down should I dig? How long will the ground be frozen?

If the foundation has not been waterproofed or the product that is installed needs some touching up, then clean the area thoroughly. In the case of cement block or cast-in-place concrete, cleaning will probably involve hosing off the foundation, letting it dry, waterproofing it, then adding the insulation. For waterproofing, apply a peel-and-stick membrane or a waterproof foundation coating. Be sure to follow the application instructions carefully. These membranes work well for both new construction and retrofits, but the concrete must be clean first. If your foundation already has good waterproofing, then dig away the dirt, brush off the foundation and place the foam tight against the wall. In terms of how far down you should dig, remember that heat always goes to cold. Where you have a temperature difference inside to outside, you are going to have heat loss. The bigger the temperature difference, the more aggressively the heat will try to escape. The frostline in Fairbanks goes down roughly 4 feet on average.

Some winters, that frostline goes much deeper. Below the frostline, there is an average soil temperature of 32 to 40 degrees. A good practice is to apply rigid foam insulation that is approved for direct burial, all the way down to the footings.

Fairbanks building code requires three inches of thickness for foam below grade (below the soil).

Good resources for finding out when the ground has thawed would be the local excavation and septic companies. They work in locations throughout the area and may be able to help you predict the thawing time for your location. June is usually a good month in which to begin excavation, though if you are on the north side of a hill, in a heavily shaded area, or have wet soils, your ground may behave differently.

Q: Where can I go if I want more information on ground source heat pumps?

There is information on our website ( including heat pump resellers in Fairbanks. Also the Department of Energy has a website dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy (www.energysavers.

gov.) The site has general information about how heat pumps work and the considerations in installing a system. The Permafrost Technology Foundation website ( has several technical reports on the use of ground source heat pumps in permafrostladen soils. As ground source heat pumps grow in popularity, we are seeing more being built in the Fairbanks area. CCHRC is beginning research projects that will look at the effectiveness of ground source heat pumps in our region and should have some preliminary information on our website by next spring.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, e-mail us at can also call the CCHRC at (907) 457-3454.

Barnette Middle School students win national design competition

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Monday, May 3, 2010:

Barnette Middle School has won the grand prize in the School of the Future Design Competition, a contest that asks students to come up with plans to redesign their school in an environmentally friendly fashion.

The school was awarded a $2,000 prize for winning.

The competition begins in September, and each competing team must submit a model made from recycled materials, a short presentation and a 750-word essay describing the planning process behind the project.

Barnette’s student team studied the blueprints of Barnette’s most recent renovation, read architecture magazines, and examined techniques used by other “green” schools.

Click here to read the full story.

The ins and outs of crawl space insulation


By Cold Climate Housing Research Center Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: I want to insulate my crawl space. Is it better to put insulation on the inside or the outside?

A: Either method will work, however the advantage to insulating on the outside is that the exposed concrete on the inside will stay warmer and be less likely to attract condensation. These are the top two problems we generally try to solve with crawl space insulation. Unfortunately, insulating on the outside is often not possible because of sidewalks, parking areas or gardens in the way.

If there is any chance moisture could get into the crawl space, which is often, choose an insulation that is water-resistant such as rigid foam board or a sprayed-in high-density polyurethane foam.

When using rigid foam board, seal the joints with an appropriate tape or spray foam sealant so air and moisture cannot move between the joints and condense on the wall behind it.

Regardless of where the insulation is put, make sure the crawl space has a good ground air/vapor barrier, such as 6-mil polyethylene. Soils can contribute a lot of moisture to a crawl space even if the ground feels dry.

It is important to cover the whole floor, and seal the air/vapor barrier to the walls, otherwise moisture will enter the space through gaps. Moisture is less of a problem in the winter when the ground freezes outside, but a lot of moisture can get in during the swing seasons and in the summer. The barrier also prevents gases, particularly radon, from entering in through the crawl space.

Q: I have unused construction materials.

Where can I take them for recycling besides one of the local transfer sites?

A: Habitat for Humanity will accept good quality building materials like doors, cabinets, or anything else used to build a house. They will even accept good quality appliances. Habitat sells these materials in their store or uses them for projects.

Before you load up your truck, contact the local Habitat for Humanity folks at 452-1685 or www. to be sure they can use your donations.

If you have any materials that cannot be recycled, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Solid Waste Department will take them for proper disposal or recycling. Common materials include appliances, paints, antifreeze, fuels and other substances.

If you have any questions, contact them at 459-1482.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. If you have a question, e-mail us at can also call the CCHRC at 457-3454.

2 test homes to be built in remote Alaska villages

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Friday, April 23, 2010:

Two prototype homes will be built this summer in remote Alaska villages to test construction methods and energy savings as researchers look for low-cost housing.

An eight-sided home meant to resemble traditional Yup’ik dwellings will be built in Quinhagak, a rainy Western Alaska coastal village where some homes built in the 1970s are rotting.

Click here to read the full story.

Make sure your home isn’t feeding a mold problem


By Cold Climate Housing Research Center Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: I have a cabin on posts.

I’ve been seeing mold on various parts of my walls. What could be causing this?

A: You might not have enough insulation in the walls or the floor, or you might have air leakage in the walls or the floor bringing in cold air.

Either one of these cases, combined with inside humidity, can create a mold situation. Unfortunately, both sheetrock and wood are great mold “food.”

Living spaces should be warm enough that inside humidity will not cool and condense. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Check the insulation around these parts of the cabin to make sure there is enough, and add more if necessary. Ventilating and controlling humidity will help as well. Windows are a great indicator of a moisture problem because they start showing signs of condensation first.

Stay on top of mold growth. Mold can be dangerous as it leads to nasal and sinus congestion, coughing, wheezing, breathing difficulties, sore throat, skin and eye irritation, and upper respiratory infections. Mold can be especially hazardous depending on the occupant’s age or existing medical condition like asthma or allergies.

Q: Where can I get more information about permafrost, building and leveling my house?

A: If you are looking at building a house on permafrost, consult a soils, building and analysis company. Many local companies have been in operation here for a long time, and they might have core logs for your neighborhood, which means they have drilled to look for permafrost and to determine the kinds of soils present.

They might not have been to your particular site but can provide advice and give information on whether you are a good candidate for soils drilling. If you are looking for information on permafrost construction, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has many detailed publications that show options for different types of foundations and other information.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center has information on building on permafrost using adjustable post and pad foundations and other techniques. The UAF Rasmuson Library houses many studies done on permafrost, and the United States Geological Survey has information as well.

If nothing else, simply drive around the Fairbanks area and look at the different types of foundations.

There has been a lot of construction on permafrost in Fairbanks and many innovative ways of dealing with it. Some systems are well built, well engineered and can provide a useful resource for your own plans.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. If you have a question, email us at can also call the CCHRC at 457-3454.


Jonathan Tinney, Director of Community Development, Simon Fraser University Community Trust

Fairbanks – Monday, April 26, 6:00-7:30 pm – To register/RSVP go to

Anchorage -Tuesday, April 27, 7:-8:30 pm – To register/RSVP go to

The UniverCity Project at Simon Fraser University is being developed around the “Four Cornerstones of Sustainability” –  Environment, Equity, Education and Economy.  The community, adjacent to the SFU Burnaby Mountain Campus, has been recognized with many regional, national, and international awards for its innovations in sustainable urban development.  To date, more than 1,000 homes have been completed, along with the first phase of the Town Centre.

Jonathan Tinney is the Director of Community Development for the SFU Community Trust. Through the development of UniverCity, Jonathan and the rest of the Trust team are making significant and innovative contributions toward the creation of independent and universal green building standards to ensure a high level of urban design and environmental performance. He is charged with overseeing the Trust’s initiatives to incorporate the development of leading edge planning policy, innovative green building and infrastructure standards, and pioneering community building programs to create a complete and truly sustainable urban community.

COST:  Free for Cascadia members and Full-time Students (please RSVP);

            $5 with online registration/RSVP;

            $10 at the door.