Shipping container kitchen could lower construction costs for rural Alaska

A shipping container provides the basic structure for the kitchen-bathroom module. (Courtesy of Cold Climate Housing Research Center)

A shipping container outfitted as a kitchen and bathroom unit will be incorporated into a home built in the Norton Sound community of Unalakleet. The module is central to a small house project aimed at lowering the cost of residential construction in remote villages.

The National Renewable Energy Lab’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks is working with the Native village of Unalakleet to build the 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 says the idea is to prefabricate the two parts of a house that require the most specialized materials and expertise so they can be shipped out whole.

“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 says that’s important to preserve local construction jobs. Native Village of Unalakleet housing director Kari Duame says 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 says 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 in how people live in rural Alaska, says Thomas Simonsson, a community development coordinator with the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation. He’s also 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 grandparents’ 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 places.

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

The shipping container kitchen-bathroom unit is 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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