Building in the Arctic can present special challenges but over the years has become doable with the advent of adjustable foundations to account for permafrost and the like. Building six star energy rated, net zero homes in the Arctic — well, that’s different story entirely. But for Jason Fails, owner of JTF Renewable Design & Build, the challenge has become his life’s work.
It’s also presented a fun challenge, Fails noted. Fails is originally from Alaska. He hails from Virginia, albeit from a long family line of carpenters, but Arctic climate building wasn’t a concept he considered until he moved to Fairbanks in 2015 when his wife became the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in town.
“There’s no real break when you run a business, clients call and you answer, you know? So I took a good year and a half, two years, off to build our own home when we got here,” Fails said. “Also I was getting licensed here in the state and studying Arctic building science. We spent a lot of time at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center learning and developing our approach before really getting started.”
Fails’ home design is incredibly specific and comes with a whole slew of jargon — much of which needed to be explained.
“Right now for Fairbanks, six star is kind of the gold star of building efficiency. It’s kind of like an A grade, it’s a 96%-100% grade out of 100,” Fails lined out. “But because that’s not enough, we’ve got a scale that runs to 106. Net zero occurs when you hit that 100 and continues with renewable energies and further reduces your carbon footprint. So six star is just under net zero. A that point you’ve probably done everything you can do to make your home more energy efficient and all you have to do is add renewable energy.”
To achieve such a phenomenal energy rating, the homes have a certain level of standards. Most of the structures boast 18-inch thick Arctic rated walls and triple-pane fiber glass windows — made locally if possible, Fails added.
“It all starts in the foundation, insulation and a tight vapor barrier occur at every level,” Fails said. “So it’s not just the thick walls but the thick walls get a lot of attention. They’re the cool part and everyone loves them. It’s an Arctic wall. It’s a double wall system. It’s R-58 and that’s what people pay attention to.”
The R-value system is a set of values measure conductive heat flow measure in terms of its thermal resistance. The higher the R-value, the greater the more effective the insulation is. R-58 is far above the average R-value of a customary wall.
The homes also feature radiant floor heating to reduce the amount of fuel needed to operate a boiler.
“This, combined with the house’s tight structure, makes the interior cozy and comfortable,” Fails said. “There aren’t drafts because of how tightly enveloped the house is and you’ve got the warm floors.”
Fails runs a crew of 3-5 workers at any given time with the bulk of design work being conducted during winter months to ensure as much building can be completed during snowless summer months.
“It’s a small business still,” Fails said. “We did about four projects last year.”
The company typically focuses on smaller two or three bedroom homes. Anything bigger than that and construction stands to get pricey, Fails noted.
The average cost for a home that size with the 18 inch Arctic grade walls starts at around $270,000, he said.
But what clients will spend right off the bat is easily returned in cost savings down the road, Fails added, citing that a full return on investment is typically set at around 7 years of ownership.
Fails and his crew are willing to make some adjustments to fit price points though. Six-and-half-inch walls are also doable; and these walls are manufactured with the help of Alaska Insulated Panels, a business based in the Anchorage/Mat-Su area. Different wall thickness brings different price points, Fails noted.
“So you won’t get the same R-value, but they come at a lower price point,” he said. “Depending on our client’s budget and their goals, we can still deliver a level of six star energy that’s just a little bit under Arctic wall levels.”
This can be achieved by putting more effort into other parts of the house.
“With thinner walls, we could focus on the tightness of the home, the vapor barrier and things like that,” Fails said.
The energy efficiency even comes down to aspects of the home like the shape. A square, for example, is far more efficient than a rectangle.
“If I can design a square, even a three-story square, I can get it really tight because there is less surface area to interact with the outside environment,” he said.
Much of this planning goes into the design process, which lasts much of the winter. The whole process sits at around a calendar year, Fails noted.
“If I have someone come to me around the holidays this year, we can design all winter and start building in the summer and have them moved in typically by the holidays next year,” he said.
All of this might seem overwhelming to the average Joe, but for Fails, it’s in his DNA.
“I’m third generation carpenter, so I come from a family of builders. I grew up in the industry in Virginia, and so, honestly, when Leslie and I decided to move here, it was kind of a refreshing new approach,” Fails said. “I had to kind of go back to school, you know? It helps keep you engaged, keep your mind nimble.”
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.