Eighty percent of Alaska’s communities are located in remote locations in which new materials must be barged in every summer, resulting in an extremely time sensitive system. If one item is forgotten, the only viable option is to wait an entire year to receive a new shipment (Airplane shipment of building materials and equipment is cost prohibitive). This delicate method requires production that is both fast and sustainable. A vital component to fostering these sustainable communities is the incorporation of local knowledge in development planning. One organization at the forefront of this concept is Fairbanks-based nonprofit Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC).
The CCHRC is an industry-based nonprofit that focuses on the research and facilitation of building technologies that will provide efficient, durable, and cost-effective buildings in the harsh climate of the Arctic. At the bare minimum, Alaska’s buildings must be able to withstand the complications of permafrost, frozen pipes, and eroding coastlines. The success of CCHRC’s projects is fueled by their mission to develop these technologies in collaboration with the populations that have been living nomadic and subsistence lifestyles in this region for thousands of years. The engineers and architects of CCHRC tap into the surrounding local knowledge to develop blueprints that involve modern designs with traditional twists that can withstand the brutal elements of the Arctic.
CCHRC has developed, for instance, waterless toilets that dry out waste so that it can also be burned for heat. This two-for-one method not only eliminates waste as it creates much needed warmth, but it also diminishes the risk of frozen pipes, and helps to decrease the sky-high fuel costs notorious to the region. New technologies like CCHRC’s waterless toilet can generate healthier, more convenient lifestyles as they capitalize on both the natural resources and local knowledge around them. But when implanted without thoughtful precision, these new developments can lead to a unique form of cultural separation referred to as Technology Induced Environmental Distancing (TIED).
TIED results from a diminished intimacy with the natural environment as technologies and other modern conveniences displace traditional roles or activities. Over time this can have devastating impacts on traditional culture, specifically those that rely on subsistence for survival. A prime example of TIED in can be seen if we revisit efforts from the 1970s and 1980s by the federal government to modernize Arctic regions of Alaska.
Pre-fabricated homes were installed throughout the tundra, supplying communities with cookie-cutter houses that deteriorated in the face of severe cold temperatures, lacked adequate insulation, were unhealthy, and crucially, lacked the amenities to support any sort of subsistence lifestyle. In addition, they were invariably “electric” houses which were ill-conceived for an area with both inconsistent and extraordinarily expensive power supplies. Unable to meaningfully utilize these suposedly more modern shelters to support their traditional, and basic, quotidian practices in the Arctic, rural Alaskans were left distanced from their intimate relationship with the natural environment, creating a cultural disconnect as well as a lack of food and materials that plays out today still. With only one barge per summer containing the supplies necessary to rebuild, communities were forced into devastatingly poor conditions, accompanied by overcrowding and illness.
TIED has become even more relevant today as communities are forced to relocate and adapt to the changing climate at alarming rates. As the trees begin to green and the barges carrying supplies to rural communities commence their journeys north, it is more important than ever that the materials contained within these ships have been carefully selected to harmonize with their partner cultures. Otherwise, these projects will fail to fully sustain traditional customs, generations of local knowledge, and the lives of the people they will serve.
AMRDI Alaska Intern