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This content will become publicly available on June 25, 2024

Title: (2023, June). Moralizing Design Differences in the North: An Ethnographic Analysis. In 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition.
Addressing the 2023 theme of Global Responsibilities of Engineers, in particular the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities in remote regions of Alaska, this paper tracks the “social life” of a prefabricated frame assembly system designed for constructing homes in emergency contexts in northern Alaska (Appadurai 1986). An Alaskan housing research center began using this prefabricated system over a decade ago, in a time of crisis caused by major spring flooding in an Alaskan riverine community that has long grappled with housing shortages. The destruction of these homes, along with the possessions of the people living in them, was a tremendous loss to this community. The region’s short building season and dependency on barge and aerial transportation services for shipping in building supplies further compounded these challenges. In response, local and federal agencies came together and decided on a housing design that uses an integrated wall and truss system that could be prefabricated off-site, shipped out, rapidly assembled by volunteer building crews in the affected site, and that facilitated a highly insulated energy efficient home. As a result, this design played a critical role in mediating further disaster. Fast-forward to the present, the housing research center continues to opt for this system for most remote designs, but builders and engineers have begun to debate whether its advantages outweigh some of its logistical challenges. Some argue that its value has been overstated, while others describe it as a practical and affordable method for building energy efficient homes in remote Alaskan communities. Still others have adapted its design to fit their needs, thus producing new variations of the design, while also showing how the design of this building system might be reimagined. A deep dive into this debate provides an opportunity to analyze how both knowledge building and moral stances inform the ways that engineers assume global responsibilities related to communities affected by climate change. Drawing on three years of ethnographic research among Alaskan engineers, builders, housing advocates, and community stakeholders, this case study reflects what design scholars describe) as the “moralization of technology” through engineering practices (Verbeek 2006: 269). From this perspective, engineering systems may take on multiple meanings and applications, including marking differences in thought, creativity, and moral affinity among experts who are working to addressing affordable housing needs in Alaska. Reflecting on these differences in perspective, this paper tracks the “cultural biography” of this engineered system across time, place, and institutional, cultural, and geographic settings to probe how debates about the efficacy of this prefabricated system come to index varying moral stances and value systems that are deeply qualitative but also very much a part of the technical and materializing processes of the building design (Kopytoff 1986). As a case study, this analysis also can serve as a teaching tool in engineering and interdisciplinary classrooms for examining the integrative nature of ethics and technology as related to a range of human impacts on the environment and marginalized communities.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
2122130
NSF-PAR ID:
10473733
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ;
Publisher / Repository:
2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition.
Date Published:
Journal Name:
2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition.
Subject(s) / Keyword(s):
["housing","climate change","moral understanding","ethnography"]
Format(s):
Medium: X
Location:
https://216.185.13.174/43677
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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