Shipping containers are a part of the landscape in Nunavut. Now, a local resident and an industrial designer have teamed up to craft a home from them. (Image courtesy of Javid Jah, Wonder Inc.)

Nunavut man plans to build home using shipping containers

“We have to be one of many, many people who are taking part in solving the current housing problem”

By Dustin Patar

When Alex Cook of Baker Lake began thinking about building a home for himself, he knew he wanted something that was novel and purpose-built for the North.

Nearly two years later, those ideas have been incorporated into a project called Qammaq, a prototype that will take the form of a three-bedroom house partially built with shipping containers in Cook’s hometown of Baker Lake.

To design the structure, Cook partnered with Jason Halter, an industrial designer and owner of Wonder Inc., whose work with shipping container structures can be found everywhere from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Hamilton, Ontario.

The duo chose shipping containers because they provide an added level of efficiency over the conventional way of building homes in the North.

Construction supplies for conventional homes are shipped north in containers, which are then discarded.

Halter and Cook intend to ship construction supplies north in containers and then use them as part of the construction, essentially, a home in a box.

While this satisfies one of Cook’s main goals of the project, namely, to reduce the overall environmental footprint by creating as little waste as possible, using the container as part of the construction also means that shipping container homes can be built much faster than regular homes.

According to Halter, it can take between 12 and 14 months to construct a custom single-family home in the south, whereas a container home takes between three and four months.

Halter and Cook both see these benefits, speed and efficiency, as being key to solving Nunavut’s housing shortage.

“A house purpose-built for the North”

While designing a container home for the Arctic comes with its own unique technical challenges, the pair also sought to challenge the functionality of the design, asking themselves questions like “what can we do to make a house purpose-built for the North,” said Cook.

Part of the answer to that question comes in the form of the building’s first floor. It encompasses a large garage, as well as a multi-purpose space that Cook says could play any number of roles, from providing space for butchering meat to serving as a small mechanic shop.

The remainder of the ground floor, which is the part of the home built from shipping containers, offers an entryway to the upstairs living quarters, provides storage space and houses the building’s mechanical elements.

The upstairs part of the home, although clad in metal on the outside, is constructed out of structural insulated panels, which Halter describes as a spray-foam core sandwiched between two pieces of material, typically plywood.

These prefabricated panels also aid in the speedier construction process.

In addition to its three bedrooms, the upstairs contains an open-concept space that can accommodate larger, multigenerational gatherings.

“The idea is that if there’s 12 to 20 people in a room, you have to have the mechanical system that’s able to handle that,” said Halter, referring to air-handling and dehumidification systems.

While the bottom of the home is constructed from shipping containers, the top portion of the house will be made out of structurally insulated panels. (Image courtesy of Javid Jah, Wonder Inc.)

When it comes to the house’s price, Halter says it’s equivalent to what a typical residence in Nunavut would be.

“We’re trying to be competitive,” said Halter.

While the price may be similar, Halter hopes that container homes such as the Qammaq project will last longer than conventionally built homes, saving money in the long-term.

“We want something that might last 50 years up north, 100 years, like what’s wrong with thinking of design in those terms?”

One of the other benefits of their design that is intended to save money is the building’s energy efficiency.

“It costs a little more because of your extra 10 to 20 percent in insulation, technology, or approach to building … [and] is slightly predicated on something lasting longer and being built of good materials,” said Halter.

Aside from interior cost-saving and energy-efficient design, the house will also feature a number of rooftop solar panels for the North’s solar energy–producing months, which Halter says will have the ability to send power back into the grid if there’s a surplus.

“Human-sized Lego”

While the current project takes the form of a single-family home, containers can be configured to suit any number of different housing needs, from tiny studio dwellings to complete townhouse complexes.

Containers can also be used for non-housing structures as well, from commercial spaces to community centres.

Although Cook and Halter’s current focus is on this initial home, they alluded to longer-term plans, including a public housing project and a commercial space.

One of the benefits of using containers is that their construction can become a simple, repeatable process.

“It’s a little like human-sized Lego,” said Halter.

“That’s literally how we design and put them together.”

For the current project, Halter estimates that between 50 and 80 per cent of the work on the house will be done in the south.

Part of the reason for this stems from Cook and Halter’s desire to improve the building process in a way that reduces overall labour costs, which Cook said is “one of the driving factors of the astronomical prices of housing in the North.”

The other factor is that, according to Cook, much of that is work that wouldn’t happen in the North anyway.

“We’re talking about custom container modification that has to happen before we get to the port,” he said.

“Unfortunately, it’s not possible to fabricate something like that, we just don’t have the resources in Nunavut.”

But that doesn’t mean that northern labour wouldn’t be used.

Foundation work, structure assembly, exterior cladding, plumbing, wiring and interior finishing are all things that will be done in Baker Lake, said Cook.

With time, the percentage of what’s constructed in Nunavut could change.

“There’s no reason why all of this can’t be done up north,” said Halter.

“It’s not out of the question that we would bring a couple of journeymen to come down to the south to see how it’s done there.”

From there, Halter said all that would be needed would be a prefabricated shop to work in and a truck to be able to move the containers.

While this would still require finishing materials from the south, a requirement that’s no different from the typical construction process, it does also mean that the abundance of sea cans already found across the North could be used to create homes.

“A call to arms”

Cook and Halter also understand that there’s a greater issue at stake: providing homes in a territory that faces a major housing shortage.

Part of Cook’s initial brainstorming process for his new home drew inspiration from a CBC article he read in September 2018 about how the Nunavut Housing Corp. was appealing to the wider housing industry to help address the territory’s housing crisis.

From there, he eventually reached out to Halter.

“This is a call to arms,” said Halter.

“We have to be one of many, many people who are taking part in solving the current housing problem.”

In part, this is why they’ve opted to pursue this project without government funding.

“Not that government funding is bad, but it’s hard to get it into action,” said Halter, in describing their entrepreneurial approach to the project.

“I’d be thrilled if I built 20 or 30 or 100 of these things and was the first on, first in, but it doesn’t matter. There needs to be 10 or 20 of our kind of companies doing exactly this right now to solve the current [housing] emergency.”

Halter and Cook anticipate that the initial container home in Baker Lake will be constructed and assembled in 2021.

“The real important thing with any of these sorts of proposals or prototypes is to get one on the ground, get it installed, document it, learn from it, and see it happen,” said Halter.

“After that, all kinds of things can happen.”

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(27) Comments:

  1. Posted by Arctic Joe on

    This is an amazing idea that will provide a much needed solution to one of Nunavut’s key challenges – a major housing crisis.

    Alex Cook is an emerging leader of the North – for him to start this off in his hometown of Baker Lake shows all of us how he will never forget his roots. The design is sleek, functional, and well thought out. Congrats to both Alex and Jason – you gentlemen are going to bring positive change to the Great Territory of Nunavut!!

  2. Posted by Angela Cook on

    MAI!!! AYUNNGI! 🥰

    • Posted by Daniel Lambert on

      That is quite logic for the North! Cost and speed of construction becomes more universal for all the bidders and time line turnkey scenario. Try it now and the feedback will not take long.

  3. Posted by Paul Murphy on

    Great ides. The major hurdle, of course, is finding/obtaining serviced lots in any I am not sure what the hold up in any community is in preventing the allocation of the land.

  4. Posted by JR on

    Build real homes, not gimmicks for press releases.
    There are real reasons people don’t build homes out of steel boxes in cold weather.
    These reasons are documented and well known.
    This is another illustration of how the housing crisis is constantly dominated by the privileged who either refuse to devote resources to house their peers or take refuge in gimmicks like tiny homes and seacans.

    • Posted by I shot JR on

      Can you point to any of this documentation? A simple link will do.

    • Posted by Darek B on

      Wouldn’t your concern be just as valid in hot temperatures… steel is an excellent heat conductor for sure… There are plenty of cans being used as tiny homes (and not so tiny when a few get put together) in the hot climates.

      There is this incredible thing called “Insulation”, you might have heard of it, or not… and if you wrap the steel with this magical substance called insulation, it doesn’t get hot or cold.

      You should check it out.

      • Posted by Insulation on

        The article even describes how they apply this magical substance to the building materials. Some people like to make negative comments without even reading first. It’s a shame really because this idea is genuinely a good well-thought out idea.

        • Posted by Jimmy on

          If you insulate the outside of a steel box then, presumably, you’ll need some kind of covering (siding) over the insulation. Framing will be required in order to attach the siding. So you might as well just use stick-built construction, ending up with a superior end-product.
          Same problems if you insulate on the inside, with one additional problem – the steel is a moisture barrier which is now on the wrong (cold) side of the wall. Serious moisture problems will result.
          But, hey, try it – it’s your money!

  5. Posted by Alan Klie on

    This is a great idea and something that’s been floated for a while now. I think the new hotel in Iqaluit is built on similar principles (prefabricated rooms slotted into place). This could be a big help to Nunavut. Good luck!

  6. Posted by Bert Rose on

    Doug has been working on this for a few years. Great to see the progress he is making!!!

  7. Posted by Ingutaruyaaq on

    This is a fantastic show of Inuit skills, hard work and creativity creating a made-in-Nunavut solution to our challenges. Keep at it Cook, we hope to see your houses in all our communities someday!

    • Posted by Fred on

      Inuit-skill!?! It’s designing a house and planning the construction out of shipping containers. The only thing Inuit about the whole thing is the fact that it’s going to be built on Inuit land…also assuming Alex Cook is Inuit?. A very proud people you are!
      Hate to burst your bubble, but these have been going on for a long long time now. The benefits of using sea cans are arguably negative especially when it comes to insulation/moisture issues. I personally like the aesthetics, but I’m not convinced on the engineering aspects.
      In any case, new ideas and development are always positive things.

      • Posted by Alex on

        Hi Fred, Alex here. Although it shouldn’t be a matter of race, I’m quite proud to say that I’m Nunavut Inuk.

        With respect to insulation properties, our engineering is sound. We are predicting minimal loss through thermal bridging or convection. In conjunction with our hydronic heating loop, heat recover system, and solar array, Qammaq is shaping up to be one of the most efficient houses ever built in Nunavut.

  8. Posted by Nunavutmiut on

    This looks like a great idea. The best solution To housing crisis is the NTI Board deciding to build social housing for the Inuit beneficiaries, lease them to the Government or have their own housing association which could be NCC. When are they going to wake up and do something with all the millions they have.

    • Posted by Fred on

      The best solution to a housing crisis is for people to build their own homes..kind of like what we southern people do. Those who really can’t afford it should have social housing available to them. But given the amount of six figure earning families I’ve met, I’m unsure why more privately owned houses aren’t being built. If you earn enough money, it’s your responsibility to get off the system’s back so that someone who needs it can get on.

      • Posted by Build a House on

        Six figure salaries are needed to pay rent, which now runs at $4000/month, not including utilities. Then there’s the overhead costs and groceries to buy. The prices keep going up, but not the salary. The city keeps increasing property taxes.
        Where is our developed land?

        • Posted by Fred on

          You do realize that $4000 a month paid in rent could support an $800k mortgage right!?
          There’s plenty for sale in the north for less than $800k. Could probably even save a few bucks by taking care of your own housing.

          • Posted by Build a House on

            Fred, you make a lot of assumptions without knowing the facts. As I made a comment on the current rental market, you assumed that I’m not a home-owner. Actually, I do enjoy the privilege. I think people that are here short-term would prefer to rent, rather than buy. Or by your logic, in any city, everyone should buy a home?

        • Posted by Gobble Gobble on

          Although $4,000 a month in rent is around the cost of an $800,000 mortgage, that leaves out additional costs of owning home, as the rent here often includes heat and municipal services, and owning your own home means property tax and insurance. But definitely, if you’re paying $4,000 per month in rent you’d be better off owning your own home. Especially because when you’re paying a mortgage, you’re earning equity.
          Nunavut really needs to work towards more homeownership, but also needs a more robust rental market in the larger towns, and I think it starts by making significant changes to government staff housing.

      • Posted by WB on

        “The best solution to a housing crisis is for people to build their own homes..kind of like what we southern people do.”

        Spoken like a true colonialist!

  9. Posted by Bob Gabuna on


  10. Posted by Tooma on

    Excellent creating walls for safer future

  11. Posted by BC on

    The housing situation in the North is atrocious. New ideas, whoever they come from, should be welcomed.

  12. Posted by Artie on

    Building contractors in NU do not like anything that deviates from stick-built houses ’cause of cha-ching$$. Bigger profit margins on stick-built.

  13. Posted by on

    While gardening isn t an Inuit tradition, using the land to care for and store food is. Elders who are working with Naurvik said using the green energy to run the research station made them think of a community freezer, the kind built into the ground. Those elders said the hill near the station could be used to build a traditional freezer.

  14. Posted by Darek B on

    The only significant obstacle I see to this great Idea is will be able to actually get enough “Usable” containers. Most jurisdictions (in the South) permit only “Single-Use” containers to be converted for residential use since there is no mechanism for tracking container history (what it was carried in previous passages). That means if the container carried some toxin causing cancer, then next time it carried teddy bear toys, you’ll only ever hear about the teddy bears.

    There are some excellent designs out there using containers, they could really speed up some of the construction. Incorporate a Construction Shop into the local school and start teaching the next generations of home builders while you’re at it.

    Lots of potential here.

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