Fairbanks designers testing shipping container kitchen-bathroom module for rural Alaska

A crew of workers stand around a shipping container
Shipping container which provides the basic structure for the kitchen bathroom module. (Credit Cold Climate Housing Research Center)

The National Renewable Energy Lab’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks is working with the Native village of Unalakleet to build a prototype kitchen-bathroom module inside an 8-by-20-foot steel shipping container.

“Basically, looking at how a container could be used to make a semi-modular home in rural Alaska,” said Aaron Cooke, architect and project manager.

He said the idea is to prefabricate the two parts of a house that require the most specialized materials and expertise. That will be shipped directly out to the site.

“Then the container holding the bathroom and the kitchen will just be plugged into the house like a cassette. And then the rest of the house will be built around it and roofed,” he said.

Cooke said it’s important to preserve local construction jobs. Native Village of Unalakleet Housing Director Kari Duame said having the kitchen and bathroom components completed offsite gets around the need to bring in skilled trades people.

“Once you do get somebody out here, you’re paying so much for the cost of their flights and all their equipment and tools and their housing — the cost is just astronomical.”

Duame said avoiding these costs will make federal Indian housing block grant dollars go further in the community.

The high costs of rural housing have real effects on how people live in rural Alaska, according to Thomas Simonsson, a community development coordinator with the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation. He’s part of a regional group formed to help find solutions to the housing shortage.

“Overcrowded housing is so common. It’s so expensive for people to get out of their parents or their grandparent’s house and get their own,” he said.

Simonsson sees the shipping container small house project as a model that could help more people get their own place.

“I know how important it could be to just have your own little space, but also have it efficient and make it work. Not just four walls and the roof, but\ actually have it be meaningful and functional.”

The shipping container kitchen-bathroom unit is currently being outfitted at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center facility in Fairbanks, and will be barged to Unalakleet in the spring, then plugged into the rest of the home built on site there this summer. The Native Village of Unalakleet will conduct an application process to select a recipient for the new home based on income and other qualifications

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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