Tag Archives: Sustainability

A Holistic Approach to Sustainable Northern Communities

The First Roundtable on Holistic Design at CCHRC in Fairbanks, October 2014.

The First Roundtable on Holistic Design at CCHRC in Fairbanks, October 2014.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year on housing and infrastructure to improve quality of life in rural Alaska – wind turbines, power houses, roads, housing, weatherization, plumbing, and much more. Meanwhile, many Alaska communities are struggling to survive in the face of energy costs, climate change, coastal erosion, lack of jobs, and other challenges.

Plenty of organizations are trying to help – state and federal agencies, regional corporations, housing authorities, tribal entities, nonprofits – each focused on an individual aspect: energy, housing, sanitation, transportation, health, local economies, culture, education. Yet rarely do we address all these pieces in a holistic approach. The evidence is everywhere: brand new $70,000 sewer lines hooked up to rotting houses; leaky homes in villages that pay $8 a gallon for heating fuel; roads built one year and dug up the next to install water pipe.

Jack Hebert with CCHRC talks about the role of energy efficient housing and indoor air quality in community development.

Jack Hebert with CCHRC talks about the role of energy efficient housing and indoor air quality in community development.

The Holistic Approach to Sustainable Northern Communities is a demonstration project that will factor in the many elements of community development. It started with two roundtable discussions this fall, where leaders from all levels of government and community planning came together and shared their successes and challenges, their needs and ideas for a more effective process. Now we are planning a pilot project in the Yukon Kuskokwim region that starts with one piece and builds a model of collaboration for all communities in Alaska.

Stay tuned for our next roundtable in Anchorage in December!

What are Structural Insulated Panels and considerations for Alaska

SIPsStructural Insulated Panels, or SIPs, are prefabricated building panels that combine structural elements, insulation, and sheathing in one product. SIPs can be used for the walls, roof and floor of a building in place of more traditional construction methods, such as stick-framing. A SIP typically consists of a foam insulation core with a structural sheathing panel bonded to both faces. Sheathing panels are usually made of industry standard OSB or plywood.

Building with SIPs

 

Constructing a home from SIPs begins at the design phase: builders must work with the SIP manufacturer since the panels are specific to the design. Once the plans are finalized, the SIPs are made and shipped to the job site. The panels are labeled so builders know exactly where each panel goes in the building.

As they are erected, the panels must be joined together according to manufacturer specifications. For instance, many panels are joined with splines that are secured with screws. When the structural connections between panels are being made, workers must take care to seal the joint between the panels to ensure it remains airtight. Air sealing the panel joints can be accomplished using sealing agents such as caulk, adhesive, mastic, spray foam or tape. A tight seal is also necessary in order to prevent moisture from entering the panel, which can lead to structural deterioration of the panel components over time. Some building inspectors may require a 6mil polyethylene sheeting vapor retarder be installed on the interior side (warm side) of the SIPs once the panel construction is completed.

SIPs2

Electrical outlets and wiring are usually installed into recesses and holes pre-cut into the panels, both on the interior and the exterior as needed. Any special considerations for running electrical systems or other mechanical penetrations through the SIPs should be addressed with the manufacturer during the design phase.

Benefits and Concerns

There are several potential benefits to building with SIPs. For one, the absence of an air permeable wall cavity prevents convective heat losses from occurring within the panels. Large panels will have fewer framing members than a stick-framed wall, which reduces heat losses due to thermal bridging. With a trained crew, SIP buildings can be erected quickly, a big advantage in climates with short building seasons. Properly constructed, a SIP panel home can realize a high level of air tightness and energy efficiency.

On the other hand, builders must take extra care to ensure proper assembly and sealing to prevent any problems due to moisture infiltration and air leakage. Builders also do not have much flexibility in on-site design changes, since panels come pre-cut. An experienced builder who can work through a home design with the manufacturer and who doesn’t cut corners with sealing panel joints is a necessity.

SIPs can be either cost-effective or cost-prohibitive depending on the situation. The design services and shipping costs may drive the price of SIPs above that of conventional framing materials. However, this can pay off in reduced labor costs if a trained crew erects a building quickly, or if several buildings of the same design are being erected.

Egress and Home Safety

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAEgress is a means of emergency escape. Not surprisingly, all houses need egress for events such as a fire, and emergency egress is required by the International Residential Code for residential buildings. The IRC requires a form of egress in basements and rooms where people sleep. Each bedroom must have its own emergency exit.

While egress could be a door opening to the outside, it is most commonly a window, and the IRC specifies minimum requirements for egress windows. For one, an egress window needs to open to a public street, alley, yard or court. Also, the window must meet minimum size requirements so people can exit. The minimum size is 5.7 square feet, unless the windowsill is on the floor, in which case the minimum is 5 square feet. The window must be at least 2 feet tall and 20 inches wide. Meeting the minimum height and width requirements doesn’t guarantee meeting the minimum area, so the window will have to be larger in at least one of those dimensions.

Finally, the window cannot be more than 44 inches from the floor, and people must be able to open the window without any special tools or knowledge. Window coverings, such as a screen or bars, are OK, but people need to be able to remove them without any special force, tools or knowledge.

Basements are often located below grade, or below the typical ground level. Since egress windows in basements wouldn’t do much good opening to soil, a window well is required outside the window. The window well should be large enough for the window to open fully, and also should contain a ladder if the well is more than 44 inches deep. Of course, the IRC specifies well and ladder dimensions if this situation applies to your home.

Does your house have emergency egress? Some older homes built before the IRC requirements do not. A means of egress is sometimes overlooked during remodels — for example, converting a space to a bedroom that was not initially planned for that use. If you have a room that does not meet the minimum egress requirements, there are many reasons to correct the problem, the most important being providing a way to exit a house safely in an emergency.

Adding egress windows in required rooms will allow your house to pass inspection should you decide to sell it and will add value to the home as well. Sometimes, adding or replacing windows can become a major project, and it must be done correctly to avoid air leakage and drainage problems later. If you need to install egress windows, find a contractor familiar with the building code and who will take the time to properly install energy efficient windows that meet the requirements.