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Design and Learning Leadership for the 21st Century: Student Throws Lifeline to Alaskan Town Drowning Due to Climate Change

UC's leadership in experiential learning is globally acknowledged. Its impact is equally widespread. The latest example is a student design that will be implemented to help an imperiled Native American community in Alaska.

Date: 5/20/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Provided by Aaron Cooke

UC ingot   The effects of climate change have put University of Cincinnati architecture senior Aaron Cooke, 34, in a sweat.

That’s because he’s the lead designer on a critical real-world project to design the key structure (an emergency shelter/community center) at the new hometown site for an Alaskan Native American community being forced to relocate because its current coastal settlement will be lost to rising sea waters within a decade.

The University of Cincinnati is the global founder of cooperative education, having initiated the experiential learning program in 1906. Co-op is the practice wherein students alternate quarters or semesters of in the classroom with quarters or semesters of professionally paid work related directly to their majors. UC’s co-op is among the nation’s Top Ten, according to U.S. News & World Report.

And it was as a UC co-op student that Cooke began to design a new center for a soon-to-be relocated community in southwestern Alaska.
Newtok resident and Aaron Cooke
UC's Aaron Cooke, right, stands on the site of what will become the new location for the Newtok community. With him is a resident who guided him to the site. The current Newtok community will relocate due to climate change and its effects.

It was last spring and summer when he was co-opping for Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, when Cooke learned that 184 out of 200 rural communities in Alaska are in danger due to the effects of climate change and the communities’ traditional locations along waterways.

Recalled Cooke, “I expressed interest to my supervisor in focusing on one of these communities because Cold Climate’s long-established mission is related to providing sustainable housing for Native Americans. My supervisor eventually got me a meeting with the Alaska State Department of Commerce, and I made a one-hour presentation, seeking to do this project for the endangered community of Newtok, which is losing 80 feet of shoreline a year.”

“And, yes, I was very nervous during that presentation,” he added.

In the end, Cooke and Cold Climate were asked (in competition against two competing firms) to complete the design concept for the community’s new emergency shelter/community center and to help see the project through to construction, with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development providing $2 million in funding for materials.
Rendering of community shelter
A rendering of Aaron Cooke's design for a community center/emergency shelter for the new settlement of Newtok. The structure is a key piece as the Native American community must relocate because climate change is drowning their current site.

Sally Russell Cox, a planner with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, explained that Cooke’s interest, enthusiasm and proposal were all well timed since the Newtok community and the Newtok Planning Group had long recognized that the community would need an evacuation shelter/community center when it moved due to the ongoing climate changes.

“But funding is tight,” she added. “That means we need a shelter that is easy to maintain, low cost, culturally and environmentally appropriate and sustainable. We wanted a shelter that would serve as a model to inform housing and other buildings that would eventually be erected on the new site for Newtok and in other locales in Alaska.”

Cold Climate President/Chief Executive Officer Jack Hebert has no doubt that Aaron Cooke’s design will meet all of the cost, cultural, environmental and sustainability challenges inherent in the project: “In working with Aaron during his spring and summer co-op with us in 2008, I saw that he had a lot of strengths. I’m hiring him full time after he graduates this June. I’m getting a great designer.”

He added, “The next very critical step is to focus on how to build the structure in the most cost-effective, sustainable and efficient way. This will be a very different classroom [for Aaron] and the one he will enter when he begins his job with us.”

Timeline of Aaron Cooke’s work on the Newtok emergency shelter/community center

  • In 2008, UC’s Aaron Cooke learns about the community’s need when a co-op student at Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, an organization committed to sustainable design.
  • While still on his co-op, Cooke makes a presentation to the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development in order to win the project for himself and Cold Climate.
  • After his co-op with Cold Climate ended last fall, Cooke continues working on the project, making it the subject of his required master’s thesis at UC.
  • Cooke will go to work for Cold Climate full time after he graduates in June and will see the project through to completion. The emergency shelter/community center for the Newtok community is slated for completion during summer 2010.

Newtok, Alaska, is among the hardest hit of about 180 Alaskan villages suffering erosion due to rising waters.

The permafrost (permanently frozen subsoil) on which it rests is melting, due to warming air temperatures and ocean waters. The village is already below sea level and sinking. The traditional settlement has no choice but to move within the next five years.

It has secured a new village site – currently named Mertarvik – nine miles to the south. The new site will be situated at a higher elevation on Nelson Island, formerly a volcano. Its basalt base means that any permafrost melt won’t cause the town itself to sink and submerge.
Newtok charrette
UC's Aaron Cooke, left, presents design ideas to and seeks feedback from Newtok residents.

Grant by grant, partnership by partnership, the village is funding and putting the pieces together for its move. It’s a relocation that will eventually require roads, water and sewer systems, houses and, of course, Cooke’s emergency shelter/community center at the new site for the village.

While the State of Alaska will fund materials for the new shelter/center, the Yup’ik Eskimo villagers will perform construction labor along with the Department of Defence’s Innovative Readiness Training Program, which provides community assistance as part of military training.  

Cooke, a UC graduate student from Fairbanks, Alaska, has been traveling to Newtok once each quarter to conduct research and obtain feedback from his clients, the 320 residents of Newtok. After all, his design for the 8,500 square-foot shelter/center must be an environmental fit for the climate as well as a cultural fit for the community, which still practices subsistence hunting.

As both a community center and emergency shelter, the design must be able to provide

  • Safe, secure and reasonably comfortable shelter for 320 people for one week in the event of a catastrophic event, such as a flood or hurricane.
  • Safe, secure and reasonably comfortable shelter for the community’s young children and elderly for one month.
  • Safe, secure and reasonably comfortable shelter for 50 construction workers for an indefinite period.

Stanley Tom, Newtok tribal administrator, said that Cooke is closely working with the village in terms of providing feedback and seeking ideas for his design. Said Tom, “Aaron has kept us apprised of the floor plan and features. He’s also come to us seeking information about wind conditions, the direction and force of the wind. He’s listened and accepted our proposals regarding ideas on how to set up a building to deal with the wind.”
Interior view
An interior view of the three levels of the community center/emergency shelter Cooke is designing for use at Newtok's new community site.

Cold Climate’s Jack Hebert emphasized that Cooke’s ability to listen is as important as any other skill he brings to the project. Said Hebert, “The process is as important as the design. By that, I mean the process of engaging people in the formation of a design that reflects cultural and environmental needs. It’s a slippery issue, and Aaron’s made a very good start at creating an aesthetic that appeals to the future users of the structure. He also pays a lot of attention to site, to function, to the realities of the harsh environment.”

In terms of its exterior design, Cooke is creating a structure that resembled an ‘upside-down U.’

He explained, “It’s the easiest geometry to heat. It has less surface to volume. In terms of heating and cooling, that’s why a sphere is always better than a rectangle. It’s more compact and has less surface area to heat or cool.”

The spherical shape of the insulated building will also shed snow drifts more easily than a rectangular building. (In Alaska, it’s not uncommon for drifts to bury rectangular homes and structures.)
Newtok's current community center
Newtok's current community center, pictured here, sinks into the mud in the summer and is buried in snow drifts in winter. The drifts bury structures like this not because of snowfall amount (22 inches a year) but due to wind.

Said Cooke, “I’ve also oriented the entrance of the building to the south. The wind in the new location generally blows from the west. This means it’s unlikely the entrance will get buried in a snow drift, and a person exiting and entering the structure won’t be battling a direct wind when coming or going.”

Other features

  • The shelter contains only four showers that will draw water from underground storage tanks. However, it does include two huge steam baths that fit 12 men and women each. People can gather driftwood to heat the baths, which are traditional in the Yup’ik culture.
  • Underground storage space for hunting and fishing gear as well as nets, fish hooks and rifles. The underground space, reaching 10 feet below the surface, is lined with a membrane to prevent moisture damage. This basement will also serve as a natural cooler, since it will maintain a constant 31-degree temperature, for cold storage of fish and game.
  • A portable sewage treatment plant that fits into a shipping container. Gravity will move human waste down pipes and through the plant.
  • The curved roof will be supported by means of small beams placed in a diamond pattern. The building won’t use huge spanning beams, which saves on shipping costs and makes construction a simpler task.
    Current Newtok community
    The current location of the Newtok community.

If the goal of keeping costs down is met, Cooke hopes his design for the new Newtok  might become a model for other Alaskan communities that will also need to move.

That’s because the new structure is appropriate for both the environment and the culture, according to Alaska’s Russell-Cox. She explained, “In rural Alaska, most structures are facsimiles of buildings suitable for elsewhere but not suited to rural Alaska. This sets the stage for a new, more appropriate type of construction. It has come from our ability to have another type of expertise – architecture – at the table. While we’ve long had an interdisciplinary group (engineers, economic planners and others) working with the village, this is the first time we’ve had someone with architecture expertise at the table.”