Better Housing for a new decade

By Molly Rettig

This Six Star home was built in Fairbanks as part of the state’s programs incentivizing energy-efficient new homes and retrofits. It has R-60 walls and an R-100 roof and uses no fossil fuels for heat.

Airport Heights is a trendy neighborhood these days. Sitting on the trails just 10 minutes from downtown Anchorage, it’s centrally located while still being relatively quiet. Modest-sized homes are stitched together by sidewalks, yards and gardens, while parks and a local bakery foster a sense of community. That’s one reason young families have flocked there over the past decade. “There are a lot of great things about the neighborhood,” says Dustin Madden, who lived there for 10 years, but “energy-efficient homes is not one of them.”

Constructed by the military after World War II, when the city’s population started taking off, the homes were built with speed – not climate – in mind. Like many of his neighbors, Dustin’s home had 2x4 walls with an uninsulated slab-on-grade foundation. So in 2012, he did a major upgrade: added insulation to the attic, replaced patio doors, and dug a trench around the entire home to install foam board. It cost about $5,500, which was all returned to him through a state initiative to promote energy efficiency in Alaska homes. “It was essentially a free upgrade, and then I have the energy savings indefinitely.”

He’s not alone. From 2008-2018, roughly 50,000 homes in Alaska were retrofit through two state programs. The Home Energy Rebate program, which Dustin used, provided up to $10,000 to Alaskans who made their homes more energy efficient. The Weatherization program targeted low-income households with free energy retrofits. Together, they have elevated roughly 20 percent of Alaska’s housing to a much higher standard of performance, comfort and durability.

“Overall, we have a lot more homes that are using less energy, and people are spending less to heat their homes,” says Dustin, an economist at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks who recently helped write an analysis of the programs.

The benefits don’t end there. According to the report, the state’s initial investment of $629 million created a total economic impact of more than $2.1 billion statewide, including money spent on contractors and materials, new jobs like energy raters and boiler installers, and the cumulative cost of energy saved over the 10-year period. Over the life of the improvements, these benefits will continue adding up to an estimated $4.2 billion.

It’s been a big boost for individual budgets too, with the average household slashing its energy bills by one-third. Anchorage resident Michelle Wilber saved even more when she retroffited her four-plex in Spenard in 2009. The 1960s-era apartment had 2x4 walls and single-pane windows, including a large picture window facing north. “You sat in front of it and you felt really cold,” she says. Like Dustin, she started by sealing air leaks in the building envelope and bumping up insulation levels in the foundation and attic. She also upgraded to triple-pane windows and installed a new hot water heater. Then she went a step further, ripping off the exterior siding and wrapping the entire building in 4 inches of foam. Her gas bill plunged from $400 on a cold winter month to less than $200.

Like most homeowners in the program, Michelle spent a substantial amount of her own money. Though she did a lot of the work herself, or by compensating friends with pizza and beer, she ended up spending about $20,000 on top of the rebate – money that went to businesses like Home Depot and Spenard Builders Supply, which in turn spent more on things like personnel, office space and insurance, rippling out to the greater local economy.

While Michelle estimates it will take about 15 years total for the retrofit to pay for itself, she says it wasn’t just about money. Comfort was equally important. “People upgrade their homes all the time. They replace flooring and put in new kitchens. This made the building so much more pleasant to live in.”

Today, she can walk through her neighborhood and see which homes went through the program and which ones did not. “You look down the street and see who has ice damming on the roof and big melt patches, versus those with a nice pristine blanket of snow because they have a well-insulated attic,” she says.

Alaska’s housing stock still has a long way to go. More than half the homes were built during the 1970s and ’80s, when builders were borrowing construction practices from places like Oklahoma that hadn’t been tested or adapted to the north. Today, many of these older homes are in rough shape. Nearly 15,000 are One Star, the lowest possible energy rating, and over half of all occupied homes are at risk of poor indoor air quality due to lack of ventilation. “These pipeline-era homes just weren't built for our climate, and so most of us in Alaska have been either cold and uncomfortable in the winter or paying way too much money for heating for the last 40-plus years,” Dustin says.

A typical house in Fairbanks built during the pipeline boom had 2x4 walls, extremely inadequate for the Fairbanks climate. Homeowner David van den Berg added 6 inches of exterior foam board to the walls through the Home Energy Rebate Program.

The recent push for energy efficiency has helped in those areas, especially in rural Alaska. Through the weatherization program, more than 20,000 homes were improved. Nearly half of those are located outside of urban population centers, where energy costs are highest and housing conditions often worst. In each case, energy improvements were paired with mechanical ventilation systems to make the indoor air healthier. Dustin interviewed many energy raters who worked on these retrofits. “One thing they always talked about was the improvement to people’s lives that happened through the program. They’d say ‘I don’t know how people were living in that home with carbon monoxide or other unsafe conditions that had gone undiagnosed.’ ”

While most funding went toward retrofitting existing homes, the state also offered rebates for building efficient new homes. In 2014, engineers Elizabeth and Christopher Johnston built a super-insulated house in the hills outside Fairbanks. It was the first Six Star home in Alaska (the highest energy rating possible), with 10-inch walls, an R-60 roof, and solar panels on the south-facing wall. The four-bedroom home is heated by a ground source heat pump buried in the yard, and doesn’t rely on any combustion appliances.

They pay about $150 a month in electricity to run the heat pump, a big contrast to their last home – a 2x4 structure in downtown Fairbanks built in the 1970s. “I could see daylight through some of the outlets," recalls Elizabeth. "In the wintertime, we were probably spending $800 or $900 just on fuel oil for a house half the size.”

She says they would have built a super-insulated home even without the incentives because it just makes sense in a place like Fairbanks, but it may not have had all the extras. “When we got the full $10,000 back, we were able to put that toward the cost of the heat pump.”

Through focusing on relatively simple measures like insulation, windows and heating appliances, the state has created a housing stock that is much stronger today than it was a decade ago – homes that work better, cost less, and will last longer.

Find the report on the Cold Climate Housing Research Center website at cchrc.org/energy-efficiency-programs-impacts-report.

At right: Michelle Wilber took advantage of the Home Energy Rebate Program to make her Spenard home much more efficient. Because the 1960s-era building had an uninsulated foundation, she dug a trench around the house and installed foam board around the foundation walls.