Architecture & Engineering Special Section
Architecture in Alaska
Unique climate and remote communities prompt state to innovate
By Joy Choquette

here is a nationwide trend toward sustainable and eco-friendly design and Alaska is helping lead the charge with energy efficient, sustainable architecture.

Alaskan architects have taken that national trend and added aspects unique to the state’s needs such as durability and cost containment measures to create a design that is all-Alaskan.

James Dougherty, managing principal at RIM Architects (headquartered in Anchorage), states that 2018’s November earthquake served as both a reminder and impetus for exceedingly sturdy architecture. Resiliency, says Dougherty, is one of the strongest areas of growth in architecture. He expects this area will continue to grow in the next few years.

“After an earthquake, there is a huge cost in inspecting, repairing, and reoccupying office space, for example,” says Dougherty, who notes that both the cost to a business and the waste a disaster creates are incredible.

In Southcentral, for example, there is a great deal of seismic activity and high winds. This requires resilient design, says Dougherty. “It’s expensive to build because of the cost of materials getting to Alaska,” he notes. “But it’s also expensive to build because the buildings have to be extra tough.”

When more resilient methods of design are used, Dougherty believes there is less impact on individuals, businesses, and communities in the wake of natural disasters. He notes that Anchorage, which has more robust infrastructure in place due to more rigorous codes, regulations, and permits than other Alaska locations, also saw much less long-term loss following the 2018 earthquake.

Saving Money with Sustainable Architecture
“Most people, when they think about architecture, are thinking about pretty buildings,” says Dougherty. “But Alaskans are really thinking about energy efficiency.” Dougherty points out that more people are interested in spending a little more upfront and then reaping the financial reward throughout the life of the building or project.

Luanne Urfer, principal at Sustainable Design Group, a landscape architecture firm, sees a similar interest in sustainable architecture due to the cost savings it provides.

Urfer, who spends a lot of time with clients who need stormwater solutions among other design work, states that even if more sustainable design and materials do not seem cost-effective during the construction process, they often lead to much greater savings in the long run. Urfer notes that environmental products used in projects are “extremely low maintenance, and they are very easy to repair” in comparison to more traditional materials.

While cost is always a concern, Dougherty states that there are technologies and processes that can present opportunities to save both money and energy. “There’s a lot of innovation and a lot of it is driven by energy efficiency.”

Most people realize that architects use computer-generated images of what a building will look like when completed. But what they may not be aware of is the important role that computer technology plays in modeling cost-savings for a project. By entering pertinent information, it’s possible for clients to see not only the upfront expenses of a project but also the cost savings gained by using energy-efficient products and materials. This is true not only in the initial build or renovation but over the lifespan of the building, Dougherty says.

There are also more options when it comes to “smart” building materials. Take dynamic windows, for instance, which can automatically adjust light levels and make use of solar energy to improve an office environment while reducing ongoing utility and maintenance costs. Another example is low-maintenance products like composites. These are not only easy to care for but also save money in the long run because they don’t require painting or other upkeep.

Other Trends in Alaska
Giovanna Gambardella, architectural services manager at Stantec in Anchorage, notes that multi-family housing is experiencing a period of growth. She sees more buildings made up of smaller units with more shared common space and storage areas for bikes, skis, and other items. She calls this “flexible design,” and says that the benefits are two-fold. “What this does is reduces the cost of rent,” she says. “But for the owner, there are more units to rent out, which kind of balances out.” Additionally, Gambardella notes, it offers more areas to socialize within the building, a plus for tenants.

Carel Nagata, senior architect for Stantec, says she’s noticed a lot more interest in mixed-use buildings. For instance, a structure with a coffee shop on the ground floor and apartments above, or the owners of a building live in the lower level and rent the upper level to an artist. “I think that really revitalizes the neighborhood,” Nagata says. She notes that in the past this was the norm and finds it interesting that communities seem to be going back in that direction.

Urfer says a continuing trend in the architecture arena is the use of solar panels. “They are so much more efficient than they used to be,” she notes. To make them even more effective, it’s important that a landscape architect’s design incorporates these types of energy sources as early as possible. “If we don’t talk to the architects or engineers, we run the risk of compromising what they’re doing and vice-versa,” says Urfer. “When we work together, we all get a better product.”

The recent Solarize Anchorage (a joint effort between The Alaska Center and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power to make solar photovoltaic energy systems more accessible and affordable) project has helped in the area of solar energy, Nagata notes, with a huge impact in residential areas in the past year. “Availability to install smaller systems at a lower material cost for residential customers has dramatically increased, although the federal tax credit incentive is sunsetting,” Nagata states.

This and energy rebate programs are helping educate consumers on the value of alternative energy sources and potential cost savings. “Passive architectural design techniques that focus on reducing demand on energy will always be the better strategy than trying to offset energy demand after it’s consumed,” Nagata says.

Healthly, Eco-friendly Spaces
Another benefit that many business owners are taking advantage of when it comes to planning a new space or renovating an existing one is making it healthier for their employees. With the desire to draw high-quality talent, many businesses are making the leap into eco-friendly, sustainable design to create workspaces that are lighter, brighter, and healthier.

“As far as office trends, we see natural light and attention to the wellbeing of employees is critical, especially here in Alaska,” says Gambardella. “Additionally, space that fosters collaboration, with informal meeting areas and less formal spaces, is very popular and will continue to be so.”

Dougherty agrees, noting that the cost of getting good talent is a challenge and can be expensive. Once a business has secured that talent it makes sense to retain those talented people. Even employees otherwise satisfied with their workplace may get headaches from flickering lights or be sensitive to light, heat, or cold, leading to discomfort or dissatisfaction at work. Sustainable buildings offer employers a leg up because good filtration, good temperature, and ventilation in a space lead to higher productivity, fewer sick days, and other benefits. In a competitive job market, businesses can set themselves apart by offering these types of in-house wellness benefits to employees.

Outdoor spaces are also being scrutinized with an eye to both sustainability and comfort for the individuals using them. Urfer says that she was tasked recently with creating an outdoor space between two buildings to break the winter winds. At the completion of the project, more individuals began to use the outdoor space, even during cold weather. “People don’t want to be forced to stay indoors,” says Urfer. These types of architectural projects—while good for the environment—also help individuals to access the outdoor spaces that they love so much, no matter the season.

“As far as office trends, we see natural light and attention to the wellbeing of employees is critical, especially here in Alaska. Additionally, space that fosters collaboration, with informal meeting areas and less formal spaces, is very popular and will continue to be so.”
Giovanna Gambardella
Architectural Services Manager, Stantec
Upcoming Trends
A focus on sustainable architecture and materials that are ecofriendly is only expected to grow and gain traction in the years to come. There are several reasons for this.

Climate change is at the forefront of many business owners’ decisions to use sustainable and eco-friendly building materials. Gambardella notes that increased social awareness also plays a role. If a product is being produced in unsafe ways and exposing workers to a potential hazard, is it really a product and company that business owners want to support?

This type of thinking requires looking at a deeper level at products and materials, says Gambardella. “The benefits are better health, more connectivity, and collaboration,” she says. “As designers, users, and clients, we are building better communities. Alaska is more responsive to this.”

Being sensitive to local traditions and cultures is also important to architects in the state, says Dougherty. He says that people’s connection to their built environment plays an important part in the quality of life, particularly for Alaskans. Using more natural forms of heat—such as wood pellets, ground source heat pumps, and window power—is just one way architects in the state incorporate more of the natural world and its resources in a less harmful way.

Another area of ongoing growth in Alaska architecture is proper land stewardship. “There’s an awareness of the importance of using land responsibly,” Urfer notes. For example, minimal disturbance versus sprawl; live-work situations and multi-use buildings; and an increased focus on reducing travel expenses and increasing convenience. “We’re seeing a lot of that as an alternative,” says Urfer. “And it cuts down on a lot of issues, such as overcrowding on roads and wasted resources.”

Preserving outdoor spaces is another area in which Urfer sees continued interest in and focus on. She explains there are “a multitude of reasons to try and preserve open spaces,” such as for recreation, stormwater management, and the creation of wildlife corridors.

Alaska’s appetite for good design is increasing and building owners want more of what they see in magazines, on television, or social media, says Nagata. She predicts that other architectural trends in the state will continue to follow those in Canada and northern Europe because of the similar climate. Nagata says, “We are ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of energy-efficient design and structural performance of buildings out of necessity.”