A Fairbanks couple builds a home that is eco-friendly, economical and elegant

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Arctic Edge Photography

When Fairbanks couple Sarah and Paul Browning* decided to build a new home after 31 years in a house that they loved, they knew it would have to be special. They wanted a home that would reflect their love for beauty and the arts. They wanted a home that would reflect their love of the outdoors. And they wanted a home that would be energy-efficient and environmentally responsible. In other words, they wanted it all.

Cork in the kitchen, office and "art center" (where the homeowners do their entertaining); bamboo in the living room, dining room and master bedroom; slate in the entryway and downstairs. Flooring from Florcraft and installed by Hebert Homes
Flooring inlays
Dan Givins of Stonecastle Masonry
Kitchen counters
Marble, installed by Alec Turner of Alaska Granite
Kitchen cabinets
Bamboo cabinets in the main kitchen, and cherry cabinets in the small kitchen. All from Spenard Builders Supply installed by Ron Sommerdorf of Hebert Homes
Glass countertops (in bathrooms and on kitchen island)
Purchased from Renovative Supply and Luxaris, and installed by Superior Mechanical
Granite countertops and sinks
Purchased from Kohler and installed by Superior Mechanical and Alaska Granite
Tile (in bathrooms)
Installed by Stewart Shippey
Tile design work (in shower)
Nancy Hausle-Johnson
Front Door
Burl wood carving by Sandy Jamieson
Fireplace stonework
Dan Givins of Stonecastle Masonry
Faux painting on walls (dining room and master bedroom)
Joseph Paul of Alpine Arts

Enter architect Jack Hebert. President of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), which develops energy-efficient building techniques for cold-climate regions, he is well known for incorporating cutting-edge "green" technology with artistry and natural beauty. The Brownings and Hebert were a perfect match.

"A house has to feel like a home," says Hebert. "It has to feel good for you. It has to be spiritually and mentally uplifting."

The home, a one-of-a-kind "green" house in the Taiga Woodlands development founded by Hebert, is a marriage of energy-efficient methodology, inviting comfort and natural elegance. Hebert and the Brownings have built proof that now, more than ever, it is easy being green.

REMOTE technology — keeping the outside out

Even the most seasoned Alaskans know that a warm and inviting home needs to be, well, warm. For many, that means cranking up the thermostat, which is not good for the environment or for your wallet.

For the Browning home, Hebert used a building technique developed at CCHRC called a Residential Exterior Membrane Outside-Insulation Technique (REMOTE) wall. It is an extremely efficient way to prevent loss of heat through conductibility, explains Hebert. The technique basically seals the home, creating "a tight air envelope," he says. Not only will it keep you cozy, but it will save you money.

The windows (another area through which heat is usually lost) are triple-glazed and krypton-filled. "The windows," says Hebert, "are as warm as old two-by-four walls used to be."

Keeping the inside in

The home uses a condensing boiler so efficient that the combustion process actually produces water. "That's a 6,500–square foot house heated by an 80,000 BTU boiler, providing domestic hot water and heat," says Hebert.

In addition, the house uses full-house ventilation: A heat recovery ventilator brings fresh air into the home and mixes it with stale air from inside the house. While this is not an uncommon technique in Fairbanks, Hebert says, this home's system operates on a whole new level. It "exchanges fresh outside air with stale inside air as needed, not constantly," he says. "It senses relative humidity or the home's occupancy." Imagine that — a house almost as smart as you are.

Powering a home with the power of ideas

While some environmental aspects of the house speak to engineering ingenuity (such as the water catchment system that uses rainwater for irrigation and flushing the toilets), other solutions came from experience and common sense.

The luminous feel of the house, for example, is a result of knowing just how to place the home so that the house captures as much natural light as possible, says Hebert.

When it comes to harvesting the sun, the home's dining room is the symbolic heart of the house. At breakfast, says Hebert, the first light of the day floods the room and penetrates throughout the home. In the evening, the winter sun fills the room and the house in the late afternoon.

"You put yourself down with the sun and you wake yourself up in the sun," says Jack. In the summer, the light that enters the home is more diffuse, so the house "has the ability to shade itself from late afternoon sun," he explains.

A river runs through it

If the home has a green philosophy, it has a complementary green ambience. "I would call it 'flowing,'" says Sarah.

"We're river people," she says. "We like to canoe and do a lot of outdoor things and it forms our aesthetic."

A sweeping, coiling river rock design is inlaid in the floor of the home's entrance, creating a sense of movement and inviting visitors into the airy and open living area.

"I always incorporate openness in my design," says Jack. There are certain human principles, he says, that need to be taken into account when building a home.

"The intensity of our environment makes us think about what shelter really is," he says. "Enclosure, but not confinement," he explains. "Openness inside the house alleviates the sense of confinement during dark winter months." Conversely, a home should make you feel protected while still feeling like a part of its surrounding. Striking this balance is the challenge, he says.

Building dreams — not just homes

Ultimately, says Hebert, his clients are the arbiter of his success. "I don't care if no one else loves the house," he says. "I want it to be their dream. I never want them to leave it." One client told him that he considers the doctor who delivered his first child and Hebert, who built his home, two of the most important people in his life.

"This is my 35th building in Alaska," says Hebert, referring to the Browning house. "My first home was my most green construction — a sod-and-log igloo built 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I was young and idealistic. That idealism has stayed over the decades," he adds. "We all hope we can temper our youthful idealism with wisdom."