Bringing Ideas to Reality : Life at University of Alaska Fairbank’s Sustainable Village

Ahoy Readers!

As some of you know, I have been living and working in the Sustainable Village here on campus and it’s been a really significant part of my life here; I wanted to spend a little time talking about my experiences here so far.

Once I knew that I was coming to grad-school I immediately started looking for positions at Residence Life. I worked for two years as an RA at my undergrad at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin ( and one year as hall director; I was in charge of a staff of five and accountable for all of the residents in my building. I learned a lot during those three years, and had great experiences and relationships with my residents which made it worthwhile. During my graduate study I looked to continue what I had learned  and wanted to use Residence Life at UAF as a way to integrate myself into the campus system and meet new friends and people. I felt my experience as a graduate student would be beneficial to my residents, who I assumed would be largely undergrads. I went through the interview process and ended up landing a position at the UAF Sustainable Village which is a perfect place for me;  I feel my previous background and ideas fit into this position in a fate-like fashion . The Village was established in 2012 and was UAF’s first sustainable housing development. It integrates a community style living approach and sustainable-living guidelines in an approach that matched much of what I learned from Northland’s environmental mission. I was genuinely excited for the position as it offered a strong leadership role with almost endless amounts of innovation and self-motivation. When I came in, in fall of 2013, it was the second cohort of students and we are still setting precedence for what a cohort of students will look like in the future.

As part of my involvement in the Village I have had great interactions with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC; which were responsible for the design and construction of these buildings; however, it should be noted that the original design concepts of these houses were generated by a student based competition, which is very cool! CCHRC is interested in understanding sustainable development in the arctic; they are an outstanding research group and built the Sustainable Village with several systems that have not necessarily been attempted or tried before in hopes of improving housing for the future. Although I’m sure my list is not exhaustive, here are just some of the concepts demonstrated within the four houses:

  • Above-ground contained septic treatment
  • Heat Recovery Ventillator (HRV)
  • Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV)
  • Superior Envelop design
  • Solar-thermal, radiant floor heating
  • Insulated floors (r-60)
  • Polyurethane floor Raft (to protect the permafrost)

These concepts are all designed to make the houses energy efficient and sustainable in a northern climate where we have already surpassed -40 degrees this winter (as of 11/21/2013) and will continue to do so through March. So, how effective are these houses? CCHRC published their first year results here : An important graph from that publications shows the usage of energy from the Village houses compared to the average house in Fairbanks.

The average house in Fairbanks uses 76,400 BTU/ square foot for heating and hot water (or about 920 galloons of fuel oil for a 1,600 square foot house) according to the Alaska Finance Corporation’s Alaska Retrofit Information System database (ARIS). The average new *BEES energy efficient home of the same size uses 660 gallons of fuel oil a year. In summary, the Sustainable Village homes use less than half the energy of the average new home in Fairbanks, and significantly less than new energy efficient homes in Fairbanks.

The graph demonstrates pretty well the effectiveness of the design of these houses! Of course sustainability is more than technology driven and should contain lifestyle changes as well. The residents at the Village are required to compost and recycle. The compost is used for community vegetable gardens, which are tended in the summer. The residents are asked to think consciously about their energy and water consumption and use alternative forms of transportation such as walking, biking, public transportation, or carpooling when a personal car is necessary. Community is a critical part of mission of the village and is something I play a critical role in; it my interest and job description to create programming that residents can have fun with and learn from. As part of the demonstration of this, I had a great opportunity to put together this video of life in the Sustainable Village. If you watch it all the way to the end I will say you get to see some very special footage from above the Sustainable Village which demonstrates its relation to the UAF campus, as well as some of the beauty of winter here!

Thanks for checking in everyone! Have a great Thanksgiving which is next week, and Christmas will be here before we know it which is a much anticipated break for this college student!!

In Pursuit of the Aurora : A Steep Learning Curve

Hello Readers!

We were fortunate enough to have clear skies here a couple of nights ago coupled with a good Aurora forecast. So I took my gear over to Murphy Dome just outside of Fairbanks and set up for some shooting. It was my goal to create a time lapse and honestly thought I had it nailed until I got back to the house and imported my pictures. There were definitely some issues with this shoot, so lots of learning to be done! Here’s what I found out:

  1. It was -10 degrees that night. I tried to help my camera out by wrapping it in tinfoil and adding some hand warmers. It was not enough and the images showed the sensor in my camera struggling in the cold. The predominant issue was the loss of one of the colors that left a purple tint on the foreground. I had to correct for that. I am going to be creating a wrap and heating system for my camera for future shots.
  2. The sensor issue (cold) led to underexposed shots at settings that should have been well exposed
  3. I shot at 3200 ISO so that I could shoot shorter exposure (6 seconds), but the result of that was very noisy shots that made it hard to correct for the issues listed above
  4. In a non-camera related a close, low spruce tree in the shot for the ‘art’ of it, I wish I hadn’t done that! :p

However, with all that being said I have a product that might give you the desire to see the Lights up here! :). It’s not just a picture, make sure watch the video! There will be more northern lights timelapse photography as I implement new strategies.

Photographic Reflection : The Morning After Hurricane Sandy

Hello Readers!

I am incorporating a bit different aspect to my blog and will be periodically be taking some of the photos from the ‘past’ (before the creation of this blog) and writing about them; you will know if it’s one of these photos because I will start each entry with “Photographic Reflection”.  These photos are not just unstructured, random selections, but are moments in time which hold tremendous significance for me. There are stories behind the photos which cannot be portrayed just from 1000 words worth of pixels (using the old adage) and I’m hoping to take them into a third dimension. If I’ve done my job these entries will serve as an insight into my senses and perception of the moment the image was captured, and will securely place these moments in my oral/narrative past.

October 30, 2013 marked the 1 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which was the second hurricane I experienced during my three years of living in Maine. It differed a lot from Hurricane Irene which rolled through in 2010. Hurricane Sandy brought sustained 50 mile-per-hour winds to the Northeast coast and winds gusting to 64 miles-per-hours pushed up towering waves which broke upon the granite coast of Maine. During my visits to Dire Point, Pine Point and Cape Elizabeth leading up to the storm the waves continued to grow larger and the evening grew darker. By the time night had fallen the weather buoys outside of the Portland Harbor were reading wave heights of 18 feet or more. It was interesting staying in the house that night. As the winds howled outside the house felt close but comfortable. Each buffet on the window brought a sense of security – false or not – because every time a tree resisted the urge to let Sandy tip it over the more confident you felt it would continue to prevail in the next onslaught. I went to sleep that night knowing the next morning would not be like one I had ever seen.

When I woke up an hour before sunrise I cracked open the shades and took a short evaluation of the trees outside my window. Aside from the smaller limbs down and a covering of leaves on the ground our yard trees seemed to be in pretty good shape. I got out of bed and grabbed my camera; it was my intention to head out and document the wanton destruction of Mother Nature’s daughter, Sandy. As I drove along Black Point Road towards Two Lights State Park I could not really perceive anything wrong with the world. Power lines were not tangled, there were few injured trees, flood surge was not present and all houses were intact. To emphasize this feeling of assurance that we had gone through the worst of it mostly unscathed, overhead the sky broke and turned yellow, lit by a low-lying sun just cresting the horizon. Somehow out of the suppression of the clouds there was a sunrise. I almost stopped the truck there, but quickly realized the sooner I made it to Two Lights the better. So onward I went, not seeing a single person on the streets and still seeing no damage.

When I reached the coast an ocean breeze was still pushing at about 15 miles per hour. The tide was going out at the time and the rolling waves from last nights chaos were crashing in long periods on the coast, still towering from 6 to 9 feet. Although the waves were incredible to behold, it was the sunrise, spread in front of me, which was the most powerful. On both sides of the sun the dark clouds of Sandy were still present, however, right then I was experiencing the true calm after the storm. The waves broke on the rocks in millions of diamonds illuminated by the warm, yellow light of the sun. The spray produced was pushed by the wind into your face and it smelled of new ocean. I truly attest that the water smelled different than any other day and the tremendous mixing of the waters the night before had somehow changed the waters and how they reacted with the nose.

Sunrise after Hurricane Sandy
Sunrise after Hurricane Sandy

I sat and watched the sunrise for a long time. The speed that Sandy still moved created a dynamically shifting set of lighting and angles in which to watch the landscape. I moved closer and closer to the water edge until every wave that crashed in front of me sent a soaking spray over me and my camera; I realized quickly how important it was to cover my camera. As I crouched in the rocks the frothy waters would boil over my feet and recede again before being renewed by each new wave. After a short period I moved away from my post at the waters edge and perched 15 feet above the water. In another 10 minutes Sandy had regained control of her domain and again the sky was gray and flat. The waves still crashed, but as they broke in the flat light you would never they had been diamonds just moments before.

Sunrise after Hurricane Sandy 2
Sunrise after Hurricane Sandy 2

The sunrise after Hurricane Sandy may stand out as the most incredible sunrise I will ever experience. This moment I feel was reserved for me alone. I was alone when the sunrise started and was unperturbed by any human as the sun wrestled with the Storm. I only saw one other person on the coast that day, and as far as I know the pictures you see here are the only proof of the beauty of that morning.

Below is a short video of several sequences of timelapse from the morning. I couldn’t dedicate my camera to taking more than short bursts of images because the spray was constantly getting on the lens. Not to mention I needed to aim it in other directions to capture as much as possible! So, if you watch the video below keep that in mind. It’s very short and the waves never look as big actually were.

Thanks for reading everyone! I hope you enjoyed the look into the past as much as I enjoyed writing about this. I hope to continue these reflection pieces from time to time.