Building a container home in Kenai, Alaska
It all started with a dream to build our lives together. Pam and I (Kevin O'Brien) had done several seasonal jobs (Denali, Finland, Breckenridge) but we decided it was time to put down roots somewhere.
Before the pandemic we knew we wanted to get married. After asking her father for his blessing, he asked "What's the plan?". Honestly we didn't really have one, but we knew we wanted dogs and place to call home.
We got engaged during the lockdown and decided to move back to Alaska where we could REALLY social distance. So we drove from NY (Pam's home town) to Fairbanks (My Home town).
Pam and I decided we wanted to adopt a retired sled dog named Diamond (In the Fluff). Because we were staying with my parents, who are severely allergic to dogs, they encouraged us to build a tiny home in the back yard in the middle of winter. It was constructed inside a sawed off truck bed, with a total 64 square feet(8'x8'). We called our new tiny home the "Diamond Palace", since it was her's and we were just guests staying in it.
That winter we pooled together all the money we had to buy 9 acres of raw land in Kenai. We had no idea how to put in a driveway or even the proper way to cut trees. Luckily we have some amazing neighbors that helped us. Also, there is a church at the end of our street that allowed us to use their showers.
The pastor (Benny Holly) at the church runs an excavation/landscaping business. He put in our driveway and our neighbors across the street at the same time. He gathered up the stumps, rolled out Tipar, dumped gravel, graded and finished with a steam roller. It was beautiful in our eyes and we could finally imagine home here.
We decided that we wanted to build a very unconventional home. A container home that would eventually be covered in gravel and top soil. A house that was literally surrounded by life. So we started by purchasing a high cube (9.5' high, 8' wide, 40' long). It had some rust that we stripped, welded reinforcements(avoid bowing with burial), coated the inside and top with siliconized paint.
The next step for us was putting in our subfloor. Our neighbor Eli (contractor by trade) suggested we use BCI (engineered lumber). He explained that it comes in 40' lengths and is less susceptible to warping. Along with Eli, our good friend Vincent (renowned photographer/journalist) helped immensely. Vincent lived with us off-grid for a while, documenting our unconventional life and marriage ceremony.
Soon after putting in the sub-floor we rushed off to NY to get married. The ceremony was at a old barn in Margaretville NY, a place very special to Pam. We had a lot of DIY elements and everyone pitched in to make it workout. We had my niece and nephew draw on our wedding rings with sharpies and later we tattooed them on.
Our friends & family were extremely generous with their wedding gifts. We decided that instead of going on a honeymoon, we would put in our electric and septic... ourselves. Laying sewer pipe(ABS 4') with Pam in almost knee deep mud really tested our marriage. Thankfully we were able to finish in time before the first snow fall. That winter we stayed in the Diamond Palace, heating it with an electric heater. This was an especially rough winter, since we didn't have any windows, family or close friends besides our neighbors.
That winter Pam dealt with some serious depression. It was a culmination of things; working at a nursing home, close friends were in NY, me getting offered a job back in Denali(summer apart) and the house no-where near completion. The transportation position in Denali was too good of an opportunity to decline. I spent the month and half before starting in Denali to turn the container into a livable summer dwelling. I started by framing small sections of wall, since I had to construct them in the container (outside covered in snow). With the help of our neighbor Steve, we were able to cut/weld angle iron around the window opening. Our other neighbor Eli helped us install the window.
The fear of Pam being alone in a 8'x8' box without windows pushed me to work as fast as I could. Also our neighbors pitched in, knowing that I wanted something better for her. I used a grinder to cut the openings for our man door and dining room window, framed the walls and adding rafters. Eli showed us the proper way to install/shim the door. Steve welded more angle iron around the openings.
With the walls framed I was able to start wiring for our lights and outlets we wanted in the bedroom. We chose to insulate with foam board, and adding spray foam along the edges. The next step as adding an additional plastic vapor barrier to avoid condensation. On the seems of the vapor barrier we added acoustic sealant AKA Black death. Eli helped me put in some sheet-rock(Which he hates), so that I could start building a custom bed frame.
Just like the house, our bed is a unconventional one. We built it to have 2 Large dog kennels under and fit a California King mattress on top. Our dog Khumba is youngish and can jump on the bed, but Diamond is 12yrs old. Pam suggested we build a staircase to the bed for Diamond, so I did. We also installed LED lights for each Kennel, so they wouldn't have to be in the dark all the time.
In July of 2022 my employer (HAP) allowed me to take 2 weeks off to work on the house. This time we had the help of Pam's dad, Art(contractor by trade). We started working on the addition, that would have a majority of our plumbing. The first step was excavating around the Electric service buried in the earth(in rigid conduit) and our ABS 4" septic inlet. I had nightmares about accidentally damaging septic/ectric when operating the excavator. Art was an absolute pro meticulously telling me where and how deep to dig. Next he set the lumber(level & proper depth & rebar) that would be used for the footers. The cement truck backed up and poured right before it started to rain. put plastic over it and let it cure for a day.
With the footers in place we were able to set out the FoxBlock. It's basically like giant two-sided foam Leggos that hold rebar. We then poured cement in them and BAM, we now have a crawlspace. This time cement company had to use a pump truck since it was a little far for the chute to reach. If your wondering why we added a crawlspace it's so that if any pipes burst or drains clog, we can easily access it. The foundation was set just barely in time to return to gainful employment. At this point we spent just about everything we had saved over the summer.
To say the least, we were tired.
At the end of September my contract was finished and I could return home. We were fighting the clock, knowing that by the end of October it would snow and stay. Art had set up a sub-pump and rat slab in the crawlspace floor, then proceeded to construct the subfloor for the addition(16'x 12'). The only trouble was that we hadn't dismantled the shipping container cargo doors first.
I wish we had taken more photos of the process around taking apart the doors. I guess you'll just have to imagine it. At first we wanted to use the excavator we were renting as a sort of hoist. This didn't work because one of it's tire tracks broke completely off. This was probably a blessing in disguise. So after a while we decided to chain the handles of the door to the frame of the container. We then cut each door into two sections since they were so heavy. Once again a great weight had been lifted, quite literally and metaphorically.
With the doors off and super lightweight foam ones in their place we were able to proceed. We decided that one side would be 12' high and the other 8' high, with rake walls connecting the two. Instead of using trusses we opted for BCI's since they could handle the snow load, while opening up the ceiling area.
It was miraculous that we were able to enclose it in time. Along with that, rubber (ice & water shield) on the roof. Now in the crawlspace we will eventually have a pressure tank and water heater.
In the summer of 2023 we both took seasonal jobs and saved a much as we could. There was so much to get completed on the house. We had to set priorities based on our available funds. Pam said we needed to get our water well drilled. We've lived 2.5 years without running water and it was about time. Our first step was to extend our driveway to where the well is getting drilled. We started by clearing out trees and rolling out 17 foot wide typar.
We rented a Skid-steer from a local equipment rental store. Benny the pastor was busy, but he still made time to deliver 12 loads of gravel.
It took some time for me to feel comfortable operating it. After that I increased the throttle and got to work.
The same equipment rental company picked up the "Skid" and delivered a roller. It was imperative that we compact the gravel, since the water drilling rig weighs over 60,000lbs. The roller was very simple to operate with basic steering and a rumble setting for extra compression. It moved very slow, so it took longer than I expected. We had a full day to roll it out, so there was no rush.
During the time we were working on extending the driveway. One of the drillers from Northern Superior showed up. He marked where the water well would be drilled.
We called drillers once we had the driveway done and they came over 2 days later. They were very quick, knowing that we were leaving for NY in 10 days.
They arrived at about 9 am and started setting up the drilling rig. The process that they used was called drilling while casing. Each piece of pipe was 20 ft long and then lift the next pipe up. Then they would stick weld the different sections together.
At 77 feet down they reached nice clear water. We were anticipating having to go down 100-120 feet, so this was a pleasent surprise. This meant instead of spending 8-9K we only had to spend $5,400. This still doesn't include the water pump or trenching the well line to connect with the house. Since we were strapped on time we decided that next summer we will get that done.
We decided not to live in our house this winter. We did not have enough money to insulate the addition or purchase/install our diesel heater. We did choose to purchase metal roofing that we would used for the roof and siding. This makes our resilant to rain and potential forest fires.
To start off, we measured the length of the roof. I made the mistake of not measuring the walls, because I already knew the dimensions of the walls. I did not take into account the sub-floor adding an additional 10". Since the metal was already cut/ordered(North Star Metals) we thought, hey lets just slap some water proofing membrane(MiraDri) around the base. Then later we can can put planter boxes around the base. After applying the MiraDri we started putting up the metal siding. One of us would hold it up as the other screwed it in.
Since we had some extra money because we spent less on the Well than thought. We decided to rent a Boom lift so we could attach the metal roof without climbing on the addition. This was by far the most complicated piece of machinery I have operated to date... while also dealing with my fear of heights. You had to focus on the where it was driving/rotating/extending/tilting etc.
We rented it friday and a we had it till Monday morning. Friday we started by adding waterproofing membrane to the fascia/soffits. Saturday we under took attaching the metal to our roof. We brought the first two 15.5 foot pieces up horizontally. We Bungie corded them to the bucket of the boom lift. The second panel almost slipped and came crashing down to the ground. You can see it in this timelapse video we made, by strapping my phone high on a thin wobbly spruce tree and hoped it wouldn't fall off.
Once again we finished in the nick of time before flying out for NY. Once we got to New York, Kevin updated the 3D model of our house. We also contacted a Friend who is going to help us install a 'on demand' Diesel Hot water Heater. We plan on doing a radiant Hydronic subfloor heating(Pex, With a thin layer of Concrete. I know most won't actually read through this whole blog, but if you did Thank You! Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Instagram @think_seasonal.