It Takes a Village: Examining the sustainability experiment at UAF

Elika Roohi/Sun Star Reporter
May 6, 2014

The first time Denali Critchett went looking for the village, she got lost in the woods for an hour.

In the Sustainable Village, a construction worker puts up accents on one of the houses called Willow. The pipe accents on the houses are recycled from the Alaska Pipeline. August 12th, 2012, Maleaha Davenport/ Sun Star

In the Sustainable Village, a construction worker puts up accents on one of the houses called Willow. The pipe accents on the houses are recycled from the Alaska Pipeline. August 12th, 2012, Maleaha Davenport/ Sun Star

Critchett, an engineering student, was supposed to be meeting a friend for dinner—something involving organic, locally grown butternut squash.

Her friend lived in the Sustainable Village, the new, quickly built university housing research experiment. It was somewhere near the bottom of the hill on campus, but for the life of her, Critchett couldn’t figure out where.

By the time she got there, over an hour late, her friends had eaten most of the butternut squash feast. Critchett could have the rest, her friend said, but if she didn’t want it, the village residents would probably decide to compost it.

The Sustainable Village opened to residents in fall 2012. The housing project was meant to be an experiment in what works and what doesn’t when it comes to environmentally friendly houses and lifestyle.

“I was expecting a type of commune,” said political science student Nikki Navio, one of the first residents.

What she found was something sort of different.

The houses in the village (there are four of them, all named after types of trees: birch, willow, tamarack and spruce) were built over the summer of 2012. When students moved in on the first day that fall, certain houses were still getting some finishing touches.

“We didn’t have stairs or lighting down there,” Navio said. “It was very dark, and not necessarily safe.”

There was also no parking. Partly because the students that helped design the village thought that residents who willingly lived in an environmentally friendly housing experiment shouldn’t be using their cars. This was also just partly something the Cold Climate Housing and Research Center just didn’t get to during that summer.

Construction continues at the Sustainable Village, for one of the

Construction continues at the Sustainable Village, for one of the

Electrical engineering student Clayton Auld moved into the village in the middle of winter last year. He and his cherry red Jetta collected enough parking tickets to wallpaper his half of his bedroom in Willow House last spring.

The whole situation just wasn’t practical for several reasons, Navio said.

The village is still technically on campus, but it’s somewhat off the grid compared to other residence life dorms and apartments at UAF. It’s a bit of a hike to get to classes, especially those on West Ridge, and the village isn’t on the regular shuttle route, so students have to call the shuttle to come out of the way if they want to ride it on cold winter days.

It’s also more expensive. Residents pay monthly rent to live in the village, instead of a residence cost all at once like other Res Life dorms. It costs $700 a month, which adds up to $2,800 a semester. Compare that to the $1,895 it costs to live in a double room in the dorms, or the $2,130 it costs to live in the on-campus Cutler apartments, and it’s a chunk of change. The houses are spacious, well lit and furnished with new, swanky furniture, Navio is quick to add. In addition, residents living in the village don’t have to buy a meal plan—the average one costs around $1,810 a semester—so they save some money there, although it’s worth noting that Cutler residents don’t have to buy a meal plan either.

But the big thing: there isn’t a laundry room in the village.

Birch House, one of the four houses in the UAF Sustainable Village.

Birch House, one of the four houses in the UAF Sustainable Village.

Dorm residents never have to think about their laundry. When Navio ran out of clean socks last year, she would stuff everything into a bag and make the half-hour trek from the village to the Cutler apartments on the top of the hill.
Cutler is the only place on campus students can access a laundry room without getting into an entire dorm, or paying about $3 per load at the Wood Center.

“Well, it’s an experiment,” said Sustainability Director Michele Hebert. She’s of the opinion that sustainable residents should try to be flexible about the many inconveniences in their lives. “You were signing up to be a part of an experiment.”
Hebert has been involved with the village since the very beginning, overseeing and advising design ideas and selecting potential residents from the initial application pool before students were allowed to move in.

CCHRC and the Sustainability Office took note of many of the problems in the village during the first year, and tried their best to address what was going on in their approach this year.

This year, residents can do their laundry in the McIntosh and Stevens dorms, which are significantly closer to the village. Also, there’s an area to park cars now. Navio no longer drags her dirty clothes up the hill every week.

But a year into the sustainable village experiment has revealed much more significant research.

“One thing they didn’t expect when they were planning the village is the people that lived there,” Navio said. “No one had a way to gage what we would do.”
The Sustainable Office and CCHRC had ideas of the types of things they wanted to see happen in the village—a garden, a bike-sharing program, among others. But when students moved in, they came up with other ideas—a chicken coop, for example. The coop never ended up being built, but other ideas students came up with were carried through.

“That’s the thing,” said Electrical Engineering student Clayton Auld, “Students down there really took ownership.”

Auld lived in the village last year. He’s since moved into a cabin off of the Parks’ Highway, although he still works for the Sustainability Office as a student worker, helping with sustainable student-led engineering projects. Last year, Auld designed an online metering system that measures how much energy and water different houses in the village are using.

When the houses were built, they were all built with different designs. This was part of the sustainable living experiment, Hebert said. They wanted to test various design ideas and figure out which one was the most efficient in Fairbanks.

According to Auld’s metering system, the most efficient was Willow House. The hydronics system that the house used to heat the floors with hot water ended up being by far the most energy efficient. Willow House’s energy usage was always much lower, Auld said. The heating bill was always lower than the water bill for the Willow House residents.

“In Alaska, that’s big,” Hebert said. Heating bills are usually higher.

According to Hebert, a housing company in the interior of Alaska heard about the efficiency of hydronics in the village and has decided to build all of their houses using the hot water heating system from now on.

The big goal of the village is to figure out what works in brutal Alaska winters, but there have been some encouraging discoveries in the summer as well.

Village residents can go for two cloudy days in the summer while still using solar energy collected from the solar panels on one sunny day, Auld said. In fact, residents of the village can get by in the summer using almost no oil.

The village is 15 months old. There’s a lot in store for it in the future, according to Hebert.

CCHRC and the Sustainability Office have plans to eventually build 35 more houses and an information center for people interested in learning more about the project. Right now, the houses are all essentially private residences that curious people walk into at times.

Chancellor Brian Rogers is excited about the future of sustainability research at UAF, Hebert said. And so are the village residents. The whole goal of the Sustainable Village was to create a community in Fairbanks of people committed to sustainable living.

“That’s why we called it ‘the village,’” Hebert said.

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