Making Village Houses Affordable and Warm | Local company


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When building or improving homes in rural Alaska, Mitchell Shewfelt tries to make them energy efficient, affordable and livable.

“We want to be able to meet what best suits your needs and make you feel comfortable without breaking the bank or freezing,” he said.

Shewfelt works for the Tanana Chiefs Conference as a construction manager, overseeing the construction and rehabilitation of houses in the villages of the interior. He manages the Housing Improvement Program, a federal home repair and renovation initiative, as well as new housing construction, administered by the Office of Indian Affairs.

Elder Helen Attla living in Hughes received a new home through the program. It was built in 2018 using structural insulation panels known to be more energy efficient than traditional timber framing.

“I’m very happy with it,” Attla said of the house. ” It’s nice and warm. It’s not really the house I lived in, it’s a nice, heartwarming little place.

Helping seniors is the top priority of the program, tracking families with young children and then single adults, Shewfelt said. And when you are building or improving homes for the elderly, you need to make sure they are warm.

“Seniors, you know they can’t hold in a lot of body heat, they’re always cold,” Shewfelt explained. “So we always ask them, ‘What’s the easiest way for you to heat your home? »Do you have grandchildren or caretakers who can keep the fire going for you at any time? Or do you have enough income to pay the heating bill each month? “

When Shewfelt goes to assess a home, he looks for things like leaky doors, leaky windows, airtightness to retain heat, and airways escaping from log cabins.

“Every house is different, none are the same,” Shewfelt said.

But in addition to taking care of heating and ventilation, the program covers everything from framing to plumbing, from mechanical work to electrical work. Sometimes the upgrades also make homes more energy efficient and help residents save money.

“I know an elder, I built a house for him in 2014,” Shewfelt said. “We finished the house just in time for winter, giving it 100 gallons of heating fuel and a Blaze King wood stove.

A year later, Shewfelt called the elder to ask him about the house and learned he still had fuel in his tank and had only burned two cords of wood.

“(The elder) said,” Now that has really cut my energy costs by two-thirds, so yeah, we’re really happy with the house, “” Shewfelt said.

Over the past 10 years, the program has built around ten homes across the Interior region, costing an average of between $ 195,000 and $ 205,000 per home. Whereas before the program built and renovated many more houses, now they are working on two houses per year.

Funding depends on the number of applications submitted which shows the regional need for services, so the more applications are submitted the better for funding, explained Shewfelt.

Each year, Shewfelt collects applications from across the region and examines their age, how much they earn, their family size and if they have a place to live. All of these factors help Shewfelt determine the size of the house the applicant needs.

As with any program or business, this past year has brought some changes to the Home Improvement Program. Lumber prices have soared and fallen across the country during the pandemic, affecting the costs of building materials.

“I have seen a high cost of lumber over the past year due to Covid,” Shewfelt said. “I was paying over $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 more for my house plans.”

Prices have come down, they are still high and have not returned to their normal level before the pandemic.

“Every day I check the prices for lumber,” Shewfelt said Tuesday. “A few years ago your average two-by-four stallion was around $ 2 at Lowe’s. Three months ago it was close to $ 10 a stick, and I just checked the prices this morning and they’re currently around $ 5.50 a stick.

Other costs also increased during the pandemic, including electrical costs which increased due to rising prices for copper used in electrical wiring. Shipping materials by charter has also become more expensive, with fluctuating gas prices and uncertainty about flight safety.

With limited building materials available, wait times are getting longer, slowing down construction. This is a big hurdle for Alaska, where we can have three to four months of good weather before we start entering the colder, unsuitable months for construction.

Shewfelt said he hires locals to do the construction work in the villages, which means he has to factor in the fishing and hunting seasons when locals have to go moose hunting and winter fishing. . These limitations narrow the window for construction work, but are important for supporting local communities, he said.

Shewfelt, who is originally from Fort Yukon and raised in the Fairbanks area, said he has always had a passion for construction.

“I wasn’t too into video games like most kids are nowadays,” he said. “I was always out playing in the yard or playing in the woods and building something.”

Shewfelt’s interest in electrical work grew because he wanted to challenge himself. Now he is a certified electrician and general contractor who has worked in different areas of construction since 2003, but still in Alaska.

“There is currently a great need in our villages for mechanical and electrical workers,” he said. “A lot of things break down all the time – boilers break down, radiators break down. There are no certified technicians in these villages to maintain them. They may have one or two handymen available who can do small jobs but when you’re certified that’s a big deal. That’s the great part even if they want someone who knows what they’re doing.

Shewfelt said the Tanana Chiefs Conference has a committee that is looking for ways to get locals to go to school to continue their education in construction related fields and keep them in the community, but it is a difficult business.

For now, he continues to deal with housing needs in the villages of the Interior, one house at a time.

Contact editor Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her on

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