Culturally-informed adaptation of the ancient Aleutian semi-subterranean dwelling for sustainable and resilient Arctic housing


Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) is one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas. NNA projects address convergence scientific challenges in the rapidly changing Arctic. The Arctic research is needed to inform the economy, security and resilience of the Nation, the larger region and the globe. NNA empowers new research partnerships from local to international scales, diversifies the next generation of Arctic researchers, and integrates the co-production of knowledge. This award fulfills part of that aim.

The Unangam Ulaa is the traditional house of the Unangax people in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula, typically constructed from sod and partially buried into the soil surface. This Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) grant supports a scientific investigation into the construction and design of the Unangam Ulaa to determine how ancient construction techniques can be adapted using modern materials to create energy efficient dwelling specifically designed for the Aleutians yet transferrable to other Arctic regions. This work will integrate ancient and modern expertise about the built environment in these harsh environmental conditions into new built structures to increase resiliency of the structure and to help local populations adapt to a changing climate. This grant will support several activities bringing together leaders from an Indigenous community, government officials, engineers, and scientists trained in universities. The project focuses on co-production of knowledge with an Indigenous community in the leadership role. The research team will also collaborate with the Cook Inlet Native Head Start (CINHS) organization, which provides early childhood education services to the Alaska Native and American Indian community in Anchorage.

The hypothesis being tested in this project is whether ancient construction techniques of the Unangam Ulaa can be applied to modern materials to build energy efficient dwellings. The model approach will be ADDIE (analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate) with this project focusing on the first three phases. The foundation of the analysis phase will be to first learn from Unangax elders. A linguistic team will work with Unangax elders to gain a deeper appreciation of the ancient construction, use, and cultural significance of the Unangam Ulaa. An archival research team will gather available ethnographic data about Unangam Ulaa. An anthropological team will work with archaeologists who have conducted excavations on Unangam Ulaa to gain insights. A construction team will work with engineers and architects to learn about ancient construction design and adapt them into modern materials to develop a scale prototype. A social scientist team will create an informed consent form and apply for institutional review board approval for the project to be implemented during the next phase (five-year field study). Each team will produce a paper on their methodology, findings, and recommendations. Likely outcomes will be a comprehensive document of findings and a team of people prepared for the second phase (implement and evaluate) of five-year field work building and using Unangam Ulaa in the Aleutian region first with ancient materials and then modern materials.

Logistics Summary

For the Project Unangam Ulaa, researchers will focus on construction, use, spirituality, and transformation of the ancient Aleutian semi-subterranean dwelling. After gaining a deeper appreciation of the ten-thousand-year design (driftwood, grass, and dirt), researchers will transform it into a modern, energy efficient dwelling, particularly suited for the Aleutians yet also adaptable to other Arctic regions. Researchers will study traditional Aleutian semi-subterranean dwellings using elder interviews, literature reviews, consultation with archaeologists, and review of similar structures from similar regions. In 2020 the PI, one Co-PI, and an RA will travel to Cold Bay, King Cove, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska and Atka, Alaska to conduct on-site visits and surveys, interviews, distribute surveys, and meet with local tribal governments and community members to share information and gather input. In 2021 the same team of three will travel to Akutan, Nikolski, and St. Paul Island to conduct interviews, distribute surveys, and meet with local tribal governments and community members to share information and gather input.

Principal Investigators

Co-Principal Investigators

Project Outcomes


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

Unangam Ulaa Project (UUP) began as one of the National Science Foundation's Navigating the New Arctic programs supporting "fundamental convergence research across the social, natural, environmental, engineering, and computing and information sciences."  UUP focused on one fundamental challenge of living in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region:  the high cost of diesel fuel to heat residences. 

The weather in the Aleutian region tends to be wet and windy throughout most of the year, and residences are generally not well insulated, sometimes designed for other regions of the United States such as the Southeast states with warmer climates, less wind, less rain, and cheaper fuel.  In the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, heating fuel can be exorbitant and may be a contributing factor to community exodus with subsequent village depopulation resulting in losses of thousands of years of accumulated cultural knowledge.  In the current phase, Phase Two, the planning phase, we focused on the Unangam Ulaa, the traditional sod house, also known by the Russian word barabara, that the Unangax people used in the Aleutians for thousands of years, utilizing locally available material (driftwood, dirt, and grass).  Our research question addresses the incorporation of the ancient design into modern building materials to build an energy efficient dwelling specifically for the Aleutian and Pribilof region but which may also be deployed to other regions of the Arctic.

In this planning phase, we assembled a panel of 31 highly qualified collaborators, many from the Unangax community, with decades of expertise in Unangax culture, language, and history as well as engineers, architects, educators, and outdoor activity specialists who have strong connections to the region.  The global COVID-19 pandemic slowed us down a bit, but we continued to meet on Zoom, studied ethnographic and archaeological reports, and began building small-scale, table-top models.  When travel bans were lifted in the summer of 2022, principal investigator Michael Livingston and research assistant Darian LaTocha traveled to Unalaska and instructed emergency Unangam Ulaa construction at Camp Qungaayux.  Similar classes were instructed in King Cove and Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula.  

As a result of three years of collaboration and planning, the Unangam Ulaa Project is in an excellent position to progress to Phase One, the five-year field research phase in which dwellings incorporating the ancient design will be constructed and utilized to test for energy efficiency.  A groundswell of grassroot enthusiasm has been generated.   People see the potential of ancient wisdom being woven into Aleutian dwellings to reduce the high cost of residence heating to improve living conditions in the region. 

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
Cold Bay, Alaska
Other Research Location(s)
Atka, Alaska
Cold Bay, Alaska
King Cove, Alaska
Unalaska, Alaska
Akutan, Alaska
Nikolski, Alaska
St. Paul Island, Alaska
Project Start Date
Oct 2019
Award Year
Funding Track