Contest Brings Innovative Architecture to the Aleutians

Monday, May 14 2012


Winning design for the Living Aleutian Home Competition entitled "Finnesko." Image courtesy of Nacho Santiago.

The Aleutian Islands are soon to be home to some of the world’s most cutting-edge architecture. Last week, the International Living Future Institute announced the winners of a contest that challenged architects to design an affordable, net-zero energy home suitable for the region’s tough climate. Now, the Aleutian Housing Authority is moving forward with plans to turn those designs into reality.

The name of the winning house is Finnesko. From the outside, it looks a lot like an old-school diner. The walls are made of dimpled sheet metal and a solid bank of windows runs the length of one side. But appearance is about where the resemblance ends. In all other respects, the house is the antithesis of old school.

“We really took an in-depth look at aerodynamics,” says architect Nacho Santiago.

He designed Finnesko with two other architects from Madrid, Spain. The biggest factor the team considered was how to make use of the famous Aleutian wind.

“The turbines are oriented so they make use of the building’s curves, they take advantage of the aerodynamics of the structure,” Santiago says. “But they’ll look like a solid line, like a metal cylinder. It’ll fit right in with the sheet metal walls of the building.”

Unlike normal wind turbines, these so-called “micro-turbines” are fairly quiet. They’ll be the primary source of electricity for the house, with geothermal energy providing heating and power back up. Between the two alternative energies, in theory, the house should be able to operate completely off the grid.

That’s in keeping with one of the main goals of the competition: to lower utility bills. Most communities in the Aleutians rely on expensive diesel fuel for power. When Aleutian Housing Authority director Dan Duame conceived of the competition, he was looking for ways to eliminate that cost. And he hopes he’s found it.

“We have something that’s well beyond conceptual, but that’s not construction ready,” Duame says.

The next step is actually getting a construction team together to sit down with Santiago and his colleagues and start hashing out the details. Of course, there are going to be some challenges.

“There’s a language barrier there as well as just other barriers being from a foreign country,” Duame says. “So that’s going to be a challenge in term so trying to complete that process and end up with construction-ready blueprints.”

But Duame is optimistic about the end results. He didn’t really like the Finnesko design at first, but now he says, laughing sheepishly, “I’m fond of it, for lack of a better word I guess.”

Duame thinks the house is well suited to the windy, wet environment of the Aleutians, but Finnesko isn’t the only design he’s going to be drawing on for ideas. More than 100 teams submitted entries to the competition.

“I’m leaving my options open, I’m looking at some other aspects of other entries.”

In fact, Duame says, he’s considering building test homes of two or three different designs, to see what works best.

“While the competition was focused on Atka, I also intend to build one in King Cove and Sand Point. And we may build the same one in all three or we may build a couple different models.”

He says eventually the goal is to develop a design that can work for the entire region.

“This isn’t a one-off endeavor, we want a model that’s replicable.”

Duame isn’t wasting any time getting started. He wants to start laying foundations as early as this fall and hopes the first buildings will be done sometime next year.

Before that though, he faces another challenge: getting people used to more generic housing on board with the idea of living in avant-garde diners. His argument?

“You know, you always have to be trying to something better and that’s what we’re trying to do.”    

Of course, if that doesn’t work, the idea of never getting another utility bill again might be a selling point too.

You can see photos of the other winning designs here.


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