FAIRBANKS — When Tom Marsik began work on his new home in Dillingham in 2010, the former Fairbanks resident had a lofty goal of building the most efficient structure he could imagine.
Even Marsik, an assistant professor of sustainable energy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay campus, didn’t have any idea how far he could push it. Last month, the hyper-efficient home he shares with his wife, Kristin Donaldson, was dubbed the “Tightest Residential Building” by an organization that compiles world records.
“We thought if we are building a house we ought to make it as efficient as we can,” Marsik said. “So that’s what we did.”
The record was certified by World Record Academy, an organization dedicated to chronicling records in a variety of categories. Marsik said he approached the more well-known Guinness Book of World Records, but they felt the category was too obscure to interest the general public.
Obscure or not, Marsik is hopeful that his home can inspire the construction of other super-efficient buildings in the North.
Marsik, who lived and studied in Fairbanks from 2004-09, got some hands-on experience with cold-weather building techniques during his time in the Interior. He converted a drafty log cabin to a super-efficient structure by retrofitting it with 16 inches of insulation.
His current home is based on a design known as the Passive Office, a portable structure built in Dillingham that uses a super-tight envelope to keep cool air out and warm air in. The Passive Office was built using many techniques that were refined at the Fairbanks-based Cold Climate Housing Research Center.
“He’s basically including the same principles that we’ve been promoting — building tight and ventilating well,” CCHRC President Jack Hebert said.
Marsik’s record-setting 590-square-foot home is built with a thick blanket of insulation in its 28-inch walls — the ceiling has a rating of R-140 and the walls are R-90. It’s all encased in a stout layer of plastic sheeting to keep air leaks from developing, with small windows and extra-efficient doors.
“Basically, the whole thing is sealed in a plastic bag,” Marsik said. “That’s how we can look at it.”
The two-bedroom, one-bath home is so tight that the initial door-blower test conducted last year couldn’t detect any leaks. A specially calibrated blower later found it had an air tightness of 0.05 air changes per hour — a barely detectable rate that was deemed a world record.
To keep the building from collecting with moisture and stale air, it features a ventilation system that recovers heat from the exiting air, then uses it to warm the cool air entering the building.
The building is efficient enough that Marsik calculated that 22 percent of its warmth is provided by body heat. Forty percent of the heat comes from lights and appliances, while 24 percent is provided by a small electric heater.
Marsik figures he’d use about 35 gallons of fuel oil per year if that were his preferred heating source, compared to an average in rural Alaska of 700 gallons. He plans to experiment with a ground-pump heater this year to see how that system performs.
The home cost about $170,000 to build, but Marsik said only about a third of that price can be attributed to added measures taken for efficiency. He believes long-term energy and maintenance savings will more than offset those costs in his well-built home.
He’s also hopeful that some of the lessons he’s learned can be passed on to other homeowners in rural Alaska. He’s offering classes in a new sustainable energy program in Dillingham, which is available in distance-education classes to students throughout the state.
“I’m not expecting or even encouraging that other people take the same design and use it elsewhere,” Marsik said. “I’m encouraging people to take parts of that concept that work in a specific area and use them.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.