Housing in Extreme Environments

The extreme climatic conditions of the North introduce a design paradox for architects. The fragile environmental conditions require incisive designs that respond to irregular loading from strong winds, heavy snowfalls, avalanche risk zones, and extreme cold. These phenomena are often instantaneous, sudden, and unpredictable. Risk of severe weather increases the vulnerability of human habitation to natural surroundings. Housing, in particular, must achieve levels of self-sufficiency in such environments in order to decrease dependency upon external infrastructure networks that can be severed during periods of harsh weather. At the same time, complications in material provision and inaccessible, remote terrain introduce ideas of prefabrication and economy of construction within these very particular contexts. Designing living environments must therefore consolidate solutions to scarcity, inaccessibility, and self-sufficiency with innovation particular to extreme climates. The existing dichotomy between vernacular housing traditions and the latest innovation in building technology establishes an interesting terrain for the design of comfortable living environments in the most harsh weather conditions.

The first part of the studio will investigate architectural solutions and responses within extreme climatic conditions. Students will research traditional building designs that respond to risks associated with avalanches, heavy snowfalls, strong winds, and low temperatures. As an introduction to building in these conditions, the studio will construct several prototypical designs of a ‘smallest-possible habitable unit’ that will be a temporary living space for mountaineers and hikers. The process will involve structural engineers (for the design of minimal foundations, lightweight structure for simple transportation, wind and avalanche resistance, etc.) and elements of sustainable architecture (intelligent building skins, vernacular building traditions, etc.) to produce a shelter with strict design constraints, minimum energy consumption, minimum envelope exposure, lightweight structure, and adherence to limits of remote transportation (helicopter, etc.). The prototype will be given a real site on the peak of a mountain exposed to the most severe weather conditions.

The studio will transition to larger scale housing designs in a similar harsh climate. Sites will be provided in Juneau, Alaska, where the outward expansion of the small city has caused peripheral development to encroach on the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains. The area faces many challenges in relation to avalanche zones; it is the city with the highest risk of avalanche disaster in the USA. Modes of self-sufficient and structurally integral design will be explored that can adapt to this risk and respond to disasters such as the recent 2008 avalanche in Juneau that destroyed the power supply of the entire municipality. Studio groups will focus on four design topics: a mountaineer village at the peak of Juneau Mountain, visitor housing at the edge of Juneau in close proximity to the cruise ship docks, seasonal housing for workers to the north of the city, and social housing for permanent residents at the foot of Juneau Mountain.