When western Alaska’s Kuskokwim River overflowed its banks in May 2011, sweeping away much of the remote Yupik village of Crooked Creek, state disaster-relief officials turned to the Fairbanks-based Cold Climate Housing Research Center for help. Nine replacement homes were needed, on a tight budget and within an even tighter time window. Throughout the month of June, CCHRC president Jack Hébert and his staff collaborated with a truss manufacturer in the port city of Kenai to work out the details of an innovative framing system that combined roof, walls, and floor in a single whole-house truss.

In mid-July, the trusses and other required building materials were loaded on a barge for the 1,200-mile sea voyage around the Alaska peninsula to the north side of Bristol Bay. On their arrival a month later, barge and materials were met by a crew of mostly volunteer builders who swiftly began assembling four types of structures, from a 24-by-...

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