On a recent visit to Point Hope Alaska I had a chance to investigate some of the abandoned huts of the original Inupiaq Eskimo village. Located at one of the western most points in Alaska, some 60 miles north of the Arctic circle. It was surreal, walking amongst the disintegrating ruins, they are like ghosts that can not move. Anchored in time, slowly morphing into landscape as nature reclaims them.
Point Hopers livelihoods are centered around hunting sea mammals, so originally the village was situated at the tip of the peninsula, so they might keep an eye out for whales as they make their way up the Bearing strait and into the Chuckchi sea. The village is now two miles up the beach, away from the ocean turbulence that relentlessly assaults the ruins with salt water.
Of the dozen structures or so those pictured here were the most representative. The thing most obvious (with the exception of one, see pictures below) is that most are flanked by earth, or in this case tundra. Predominantly the huts left standing are the ones buttressed with earth. They were often sunken into the topsoil several feet, walls partially covered with earth. All are made of wooden walls with little more than tar paper separating the wood from the earth berms. Every year they are subjected to near hurricane force winds. No foundation. Very little structure. Without doubt the slight contour shape of these has helped buffer them against the gale winds of the region.
What would a modern version of a bermed structure look like? You may be thinking Earth Ships. However, those are just one kind of earthen structure. Earth ships are fine and set a good precedent but, when combined with more conventional construction the concept transcends its humble origins.
On a trip to Iceland last year I was taken by how many structures used some sort of earth berming. This strategy has literally been around forever, especially in colder climates. So why don’t we use this more often in contemporary construction....? The obvious answers are; concrete is straightforward (though not environmentally cost effective); building departments have little president for it; builders resist anything out of the ordinary; and architecture firms are so overwhelmed they don’t want to go the extra mile it takes to detail it correctly. Most importantly is that consumers don’t know this is a viable design option!
There is information abound on the internet and one can quickly go down a rat hole of either pros or cons depending on which internet door you choose. But know that if you are looking to add a touch of green to your project consider a full or partial earth berm.
You can gain passive cooling and heating at the least with good old dirt. It is a massive heat sink that moderates the high and low temperature peaks, which reduces HVAC loads and hence energy consumption. Is this the right strategy for all types of buildings....? I don’t know. However, there is opportunity everywhere to begin to use this low-tech strategy.
In my photos the upright “things” in the foreground of some of the pictures are whale bones erected as ‘totems’ of sorts. And the thing that looks like a skylight protrusion in one picture is an arctic entry of sorts, so that when the snow drifts high you can still get in and out.
Also pictured are a couple very different but modest structures I came across in Iceland. One is a workshop and the other is a large gymnasium. Both employ earthen architecture as design strategies. The bermed earth helps the workshop nest into the landscape and the gymnasium uses the earth to soften its impact on the urban streetscape. Both however are taking advantage of the thermal gains earth has to offer.
Again the internet is flush with great projects but they are still not mainstream, check out this project by Bercy Chen studios to get started.
We at Designworks look forward to your comments and questions....