Building a better house
June 8, 2011
By Jill Burke of Alaska Dispatch: A tiny island near the tip of Alaska’s southwestern boundary isn’t the place most Americans are likely to call to mind when they think of innovative housing. But wee Atka, a faraway place that marks the end of the Aleutian chain on the United States map like a last word lost to a trailing sentence, is aiming high.
Together, the people of the community of Atka would fill two average American school classrooms. Their community is as small as their environment is big. To the north is the vast Bering Sea, to the south the even larger North Pacific Ocean. Isolated and storm-pounded, Atka is the last inhabited Aleut village on the U.S. side of the Aleutian chain, and it isn’t much.
Imagine one block of a residential street in any Midwestern city. Pluck from the homes the families that dot either side and drop them into box-like structures on a small island more than 1,000 miles away from the nearest urban area, raise the cost of gas and groceries sky high, eliminate jobs, teach people to learn to live off the land and the sea, and you start to get the idea of what life on Atka and in many of Alaska’s rural communities is like.
A wealthy family from the Lower 48 states might do OK with the change, able to use their cash to command top-notch housing and pay for the island’s $6.80 per gallon home heating oil. But in so many of Alaska’s poverty-stricken communities this is not an option. Disconnected from the road system, many are accessible only by plane or boat. In places like Atka, barges bring goods only a few times each year. Utility trumps pleasure. Real need trumps innovation. And while it may be trendy to be green, it can also be expensive. The Aleutian Housing Authority, which serves the island region in which Atka lies, is convinced better living doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, out of reach.
“There is no group more in need of healthy, affordable, energy efficient housing than low-income people,” said AHA Executive Director Dan Duame. “The cheapest thing to do is throw a rectangle box on the ground, and that’s the way it’s been done for 40 years.” Read more