• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic

Natural Building in Alaska  RSS feed

 
Erin Shepard
Posts: 7
Location: Alaska!
bee forest garden wofati
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I am very interested in cob, strawbale, or wofati building techniques, but I'm not sure if it would be suitable for Alaska? Does anyone have any information on this, or about what types of conditions make natural building suitable? Thank you for any information
 
Mike Jay
Posts: 721
Location: Northern WI (zone 4)
38
books food preservation hunting solar trees woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Approximately where in Alaska are you looking to build?  I'm sure those techniques are suitable for some places (or maybe all) in Alaska but if you can narrow the location down that may help.
 
Dan Boone
gardener
Posts: 1787
Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
195
forest garden trees woodworking
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Erin, welcome to permies!

I see that you're currently in Alaska, so most of what follows is for other people where aren't already there to observe the conditions.  But you don't say where you are or how long you've been there, so maybe some of this will help.  I grew up in rural Alaska so I am parsing your question through that lense.

Except for a bit of barley in the vicinity of Delta, there is virtually no grain grown in Alaska, and thus (although my information could be out of date) I don't believe that straw is much available as a commercial commodity except at "barged from Seattle" prices.  So it's unlikely that straw bale construction would be economical, and you might have difficulty sourcing enough straw to make cob, unless you can identify a local fiber substitute for straw that's available in sufficient quantity.   Dog mushers where I grew up would buy a few bales of barley straw from Delta every winter to put in their doghouses, but it was a non-trivial expense.

On the other hand "natural building" as I understand it is supposed to be all about making use of whatever local materials are suitable for construction.  In Alaska, that means (first, always, and overwhelmingly) log cabin construction.  In the Interior (where I'm from) that overwhelmingly means small cabins made from black spruce (the scrubby trees that gave the northland the name of "Taiga", which means "land of the little sticks") or white spruce (long, tall, beautiful logs growing in the river bottoms when you can find them, suitable for building large modern homes out of log).  In coastal Alaska the logs get bigger and there's more diversity of species, but logs remain the natural building material of choice.  In Alaska, the economics of building materials is first and always about the cost of transporting them to the build site; and logs will always be cheaper than anything else because nothing else is produced in the state in commercial quantities, and logs are overwhelmingly likely to be the only building material you can find "local" to your build for any reasonable definition of local. 

It's pretty common for anybody doing much building in remote Alaska to have some sort of sawmill, even if it's one of those primitive "chainsaw mill" things that you bolt your chainsaw to.  If you've seen that "Last Frontier" show on TV about the Kilcher homesteading family, you've seen several different sawmills in use, and they live within a few miles of a paved road and could get lumber deliveries easily.  Distance and lack of transportation infrastructure in Alaska dictates everything; building materials are insanely expensive to ship any distance, and everything is a long way from everything else.   If natural building means local then in Alaska local means trees and (nine times out of ten) using trees means you're building a cabin.  That's the natural building equation for Alaska as I understand it.

Of course, if you're heading north of the Brooks Range into the true tundra, all bets are off.
 
Daniel Ray
pollinator
Posts: 132
Location: Stevensville, Montana; Zone 4b
19
food preservation forest garden hugelkultur
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I agree with Dan on the locally sourced material. I've never built log structures so I am unaware what the "R" or "U" value is of such a structure. If you can find straw that is locally sourced and at a reasonable price, that is your best bet for cold climate natural building. Also, Cob Cottage Company in Oregon is really pushing interest in balecob hybrid building as those materials work extremely well together. You get both the huge insulation of bales with the heat retention of cob. Don't discount using a variety of techniques for all of their benefits. If you are not in an area of Alaska that has milder winters, cob is not really a great option. I just posted on my blog (see the hyperlink in my signature) on cold climate cob. While cob can work well, it definitely isn't as good of an option as log, balecob, or plain old bale building.
sdfsfdsfs.jpg
[Thumbnail for sdfsfdsfs.jpg]
balecob hybrid
 
Mike Jay
Posts: 721
Location: Northern WI (zone 4)
38
books food preservation hunting solar trees woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I also agree with Dan on the use of wood as an excellent, locally available natural building component.  One option to consider is cordwood construction.  You'd get a nice R value but construction time would be greater.  And you may still need some fiber for the mortar/cob between the cord wood pieces.
 
Robert Bizzarro
Posts: 23
2
books chicken forest garden
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I live in the Interior of Alaska and Log really is the only7 way to go up here. Also watch out for Perma-frost. The reason why you see so many cabins built up on poles is so the ground under it stays frozen year round. It ain't no fun watching all your hard work  and dreams sink into the ground. That being said, if you can find the right piece of ground I think building an earth ship, or underground house makes a lot of sense up here. Why stick a house two stories up into -40° air?  If you can build snug down into the earth I'd do that.

We live off-grid with Solar Panels and a Genny. So I'm here to tell ya it can be done.      No much Solar this time of the year, but it balances out in the summer. We hardly run the genny from May through August.

It's perfect because when you need a fridge and freezer there is plenty of sun to power them, when winter comes around and there isn't much sun to power them it's all good because the place is frozen. We just put up a few cupboards outside to store our food in during the winter and Bob's you Uncle......
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
Posts: 1442
Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
101
bike books food preservation forest garden fungi hugelkultur solar trees woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Log construction has a lot of variety to it, and so there is always options within that genre as well.  Logs are pretty much invariably the way to go in Alaska. 

I agree with Mike Jay that cordwood is a good option.  The nice thing about cordwood is that your can build your walls as thick as you like.  The biggest problem with it is not the time (which is bad enough) but the labor (which is a lot like time, but has effort attached to it).  The other problem is the amount of concrete that is used.  With log house construction you can only have your walls as thick as your logs... unless you put a double wall and infill with moss, or moss and woodchips with lime or something to keep the bugs out. 

You can, and probably should, save other natural building techniques for your house's interior.  Cob make great interior walls in cold places as they will be thermal mass.  Stone does the same.  The more you concentrate on insulating and sealing the wind out of your envelope and then filling it (within reason) with thermal mass, the more efficient your structure will be to heat in the long Alaska winters.   
 
Dan Boone
gardener
Posts: 1787
Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
195
forest garden trees woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Roberto pokachinni wrote:With log house construction you can only have your walls as thick as your logs... unless you put a double wall and infill with moss, or moss and woodchips with lime or something to keep the bugs out.


One very common tactic that I have seen (and lived, when my family did it) is to build the log structure in a hurry because snow is falling, the potatoes are freezing in the ground, and it's about to be time to go hunt moose.  Then you burn some ridiculous amount of firewood that first winter as you continue to discover unchinked cracks when it's forty below.  It's not unheard of for the children to be stuffing dirty socks in the breezier cracks closest to their bunks.

The next summer (building season) you go back and work on sealing the structure better: more chinking, better vapor barrier in the roof (and the floor, if you're on pilings because of permafrost), tightening up your door and window frames, that sort of thing.  Following winter you still burn a hellacious amount of wood, but not quite as much, and if you still have drafty spots at least you don't get little snow drifts accumulating on the floor during the night.  (I have seen that with my own two eyes.)

Summer after that somebody says "fuckit" and wraps the entire cabin in another layer of vapor barrier. (Visqueen sheet plastic, tyvek house wrap, old school would be tar paper, I'm not aware of a "natural" product that would do the trick unless you had a buttload of old uncured moose and caribou hides.)  Usually they then fur out the exterior of the cabin with poles or dimensional lumber, put in a layer of moss (if you're being natural, it's a whole season's work for four children to collect enough moss, ask me how I know) or other insulation, and add a second layer of siding, which can be boards, sawmill slab, what Paul calls "junkpoles", or I suppose it could be an entire second layer of logs (although I've never seen that done). 

Third winter you're snug as a bug in a rug and burn less than 25% of the cordwood that you went through in winter #1.

I'm not saying it wouldn't be better to design in the extra insulation from the get-go, I'm just saying that it's real common to do it as an add-on, once a hard winter has educated a person about the amount of firewood it takes to heat a traditional stick-built cabin, especially with inefficient old-school woodstoves.
 
Walt Chase
Posts: 93
Location: ALASKA
2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Hello everyone.  First post here on Permies.  I lurked and read for several years, but just registered so I could hopefully help.

Erin, knowing what part of our diverse state you live in would help narrow down suggestions and let us help you more. 

As has already been stated, Log is probably the number one choice for natural materials. Cordwood is also a viable alternative. That said, straw bale is possible here.  I have an acquaintance outside of Delta Junction that has a straw bale "yurt" (his description).  It is cozy and warm, even in -60*F winter temps.  Heated with a small barrel stove.  He also has an earth bermed , partially buried root cellar that works well.  He does have to run a small kerosene lamp during the very coldest part of winter to keep it above freezing.  He wrote a book(let) about the build.  I have a copy or two that I've put in my library.  If you are interested, PM me and I will loan you a copy. 

Barley straw is available, but pretty much has to come from the Delta area.  Some oat straw is available near Palmer. 
 
Erin Shepard
Posts: 7
Location: Alaska!
bee forest garden wofati
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Mike Jay wrote:Approximately where in Alaska are you looking to build?  I'm sure those techniques are suitable for some places (or maybe all) in Alaska but if you can narrow the location down that may help.
Hi there! I'm looking into building in Homer right now or possibly in the Mat-Su valley. I'm currently in the valley but feel like building codes will be an issue here.
 
Erin Shepard
Posts: 7
Location: Alaska!
bee forest garden wofati
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
[quote=Dan Boone]Erin, welcome to permies!

I see that you're currently in Alaska, so most of what follows is for other people where aren't already there to observe the conditions.  But you don't say where you are or how long you've been there, so maybe some of this will help.  I grew up in rural Alaska so I am parsing your question through that lense.

Except for a bit of barley in the vicinity of Delta, there is virtually no grain grown in Alaska, and thus (although my information could be out of date) I don't believe that straw is much available as a commercial commodity except at "barged from Seattle" prices.  So it's unlikely that straw bale construction would be economical, and you might have difficulty sourcing enough straw to make cob, unless you can identify a local fiber substitute for straw that's available in sufficient quantity.   Dog mushers where I grew up would buy a few bales of barley straw from Delta every winter to put in their doghouses, but it was a non-trivial expense.

On the other hand "natural building" as I understand it is supposed to be all about making use of whatever local materials are suitable for construction.  In Alaska, that means (first, always, and overwhelmingly) log cabin construction.  In the Interior (where I'm from) that overwhelmingly means small cabins made from black spruce (the scrubby trees that gave the northland the name of "Taiga", which means "land of the little sticks") or white spruce (long, tall, beautiful logs growing in the river bottoms when you can find them, suitable for building large modern homes out of log).  In coastal Alaska the logs get bigger and there's more diversity of species, but logs remain the natural building material of choice.  In Alaska, the economics of building materials is first and always about the cost of transporting them to the build site; and logs will always be cheaper than anything else because nothing else is produced in the state in commercial quantities, and logs are overwhelmingly likely to be the only building material you can find "local" to your build for any reasonable definition of local. 

It's pretty common for anybody doing much building in remote Alaska to have some sort of sawmill, even if it's one of those primitive "chainsaw mill" things that you bolt your chainsaw to.  If you've seen that "Last Frontier" show on TV about the Kilcher homesteading family, you've seen several different sawmills in use, and they live within a few miles of a paved road and could get lumber deliveries easily.  Distance and lack of transportation infrastructure in Alaska dictates everything; building materials are insanely expensive to ship any distance, and everything is a long way from everything else.   If natural building means local then in Alaska local means trees and (nine times out of ten) using trees means you're building a cabin.  That's the natural building equation for Alaska as I understand it.

Of course, if you're heading north of the Brooks Range into the true tundra, all bets are off.
[/quote]

Thank you so so much for your response! As for materials I'd be very interested to know about how earth bag building may work up here. I know that with log buildings, a lot of wood needs to be used to heat the house as it does not hold the heat. I live where there is plenty of straw available though so that would not be a problem, I just worry about mold when it comes to straw though. But rot may be an issue with the wood as well any thoughts? Thank you!
 
Erin Shepard
Posts: 7
Location: Alaska!
bee forest garden wofati
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Daniel Ray wrote:I agree with Dan on the locally sourced material. I've never built log structures so I am unaware what the "R" or "U" value is of such a structure. If you can find straw that is locally sourced and at a reasonable price, that is your best bet for cold climate natural building. Also, Cob Cottage Company in Oregon is really pushing interest in balecob hybrid building as those materials work extremely well together. You get both the huge insulation of bales with the heat retention of cob. Don't discount using a variety of techniques for all of their benefits. If you are not in an area of Alaska that has milder winters, cob is not really a great option. I just posted on my blog (see the hyperlink in my signature) on cold climate cob. While cob can work well, it definitely isn't as good of an option as log, balecob, or plain old bale building.
I'd love to know more about how earth bags would work in a cold climate as well! The cob/straw hybrid looks very interesting as well, do you think that that would solve the issue of the bales molding? And if that would be significantly warmer than just cob or straw alone? Thank you so much for your information!
 
Erin Shepard
Posts: 7
Location: Alaska!
bee forest garden wofati
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Robert Bizzarro wrote:I live in the Interior of Alaska and Log really is the only7 way to go up here. Also watch out for Perma-frost. The reason why you see so many cabins built up on poles is so the ground under it stays frozen year round. It ain't no fun watching all your hard work  and dreams sink into the ground. That being said, if you can find the right piece of ground I think building an earth ship, or underground house makes a lot of sense up here. Why stick a house two stories up into -40° air?  If you can build snug down into the earth I'd do that.

We live off-grid with Solar Panels and a Genny. So I'm here to tell ya it can be done.      No much Solar this time of the year, but it balances out in the summer. We hardly run the genny from May through August.

It's perfect because when you need a fridge and freezer there is plenty of sun to power them, when winter comes around and there isn't much sun to power them it's all good because the place is frozen. We just put up a few cupboards outside to store our food in during the winter and Bob's you Uncle......


That's a great point about building down snug into the ground or maybe up against something! Permafrost shouldn't be too big off an issue where I plan to build but I'll be sure to look into it some more. Love the idea about the cabinets outside in the winter!B) thank you for your post!
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
Posts: 1442
Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
101
bike books food preservation forest garden fungi hugelkultur solar trees woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Hi Erin,

  No matter what technique you use, you will have to ensure that your structure is not getting consistently wet enough to cause mold/mildew.  The primary keys to this is to give your building a good set of boots and a wide brimmed hat; That is: Boots: a suitable foundation (concrete/stone/or raised off the ground) with enough of a solid lower section (or air gap) that excessive damp snow or rain splash will not be continuously wetting your bales/cordwood/log walls; Wide Brimmed hat: A roof with a significant enough overhang that you eliminate much of the potential water from your roof coming into contact with your walls, even in a heavy rain/wind storm.  These can/should be complimented by sloping the earth away from your foundation, and possibly adding drainage rock and drain pipe around that to expedite the drainage process.  If you are really considering going underground... wofati, earthship, etc then you really have to get a clear understanding of vapor barriers, drainage, and roofing loads/ roofing membranes.     
 
If you are using a rototiller, you are doing it wrong. Even on this tiny ad:
Mike Oehler's Low-Cost Underground House Workshop & Survival Shelter Seminar - 3 DVD+2 Books Deal
https://permies.com/wiki/48625/digital-market/digital-market/Mike-Oehler-Cost-Underground-House
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
Boost this thread!