Indigenous practices make housing sustainable in Alaska

A government agency is turning to the centuries-old knowledge of Indigenous populations to address the climate crisis.

Rural Alaska needs affordable housing that can withstand climate change. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), looks to local Indigenous peoples’ ancestral practices for solutions.

Alaska Natives “figured out how to adapt to this environment over thousands of years,” said NREL regional director Bruno Grunau. “The challenge is figuring out how to apply this traditional knowledge and the lessons learned in the lab in an affordable, scalable way to meet the huge housing needs of northern people.”

Millennia of Indigenous housing

North America’s first nations have long been experts at building homes that can adapt to changing climates.

“Native Americans were the first green architects and builders of the Americas,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, “and traditional Native American building designs and practices are sustainable.”

In Alaska, Native American knowledge and practices are still alive in most communities and tribes. “The First Alaskans and First Peoples have a long history living on these lands and are experts in adaptation,” Grunau said.

Men at table watching as another man flips through book (Courtesy of CCHRC )
CCHRC designers Jack Hébert, right, and Aaron Cooke, left, discuss building plans with local leaders in Atmautluak, a Yup’ik village in southwest Alaska. (Courtesy of CCHRC)

CCHRC’s team learned that the best way to make housing sustainable and climate resilient is to engage local communities from the beginning. The research team met with local leaders, listened, gathered information and built solutions together.

The result? Twenty-five collaborative housing projects built with input from local Alaskan tribes and several more on the horizon.

Old solutions to new problems

Around 80% of Alaskan land is situated atop permafrost, which means the landscape is constantly changing and will continue to shift as the climate crisis causes the permafrost to thaw. NREL works to assure the homes built on top of a changing landscape will withstand any natural movement of the foundation.

In order to build structures that keep occupants comfortable during high winds and temperature swings from minus 46 degrees to 21 degrees Celsius, the CCHRC team consulted with tribes on how to insulate the houses.

Men building house in front of mountain (Courtesy of CCHRC)
A local crew in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, builds a demonstration home in 2009 that combines traditional techniques like earth-berming with the best building science of today. (Courtesy of CCHRC)

The insulation techniques came from 10,000 years of tribal practice and were perfected in CCHRC’s labs.

“The northern animal doesn’t eat more in the winter to stay warm,” says Aaron Cooke, an architect at CCHRC-NREL. “They grow thicker fur or blubber.”

The team designed homes with sod roofs and earth-berming — in which the sides of the house are covered by the ground. These mimic the traditional sod igloos villagers once lived in.

These homes reduced fuel-burning for heat by more than 80%.

NREL’s cold climate research team hopes their collaborative approach becomes a model for implementing climate-friendly housing technology with Indigenous guidance.

“We believe strongly that Alaska solutions have global applications,” said Grunau.