The Uutukuu Iglu an Alaska Tiny Home

Story and photography by Molly Rettig

The upside of moving from a 5,000-square-foot home into one that’s 9-feet wide by 20-feet long is that it doesn’t take long. But then there are challenges too, like tracking down the right furniture and figuring out how to squeeze a bathroom into a space the size of a motorhome.

“I ordered kitchen cabinets that would allow me enough room for my favorite couch,” says Jack Hébert.

He leaned back on a blue-green leather couch with his feet propped on a wooden chest he built 40 years ago, back when he lived in a sod house in the Brooks Range. “It has hand-sawn boards, local spruce and babiche hinges.”

Jack is a well-known homebuilder in Fairbanks and founder of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, an organization that tests and develops housing and energy technologies for the North. He has designed and built many custom homes for clients in Alaska, from southern plantation homes to full-scribe log structures. Before this, he lived in a French provincial house on a ridge overlooking the Tanana Valley.

But today, at 68, he wanted something simpler. His kids are grown up and he spends a lot of time in Palmer, where he owns a three-bedroom home with his partner. But he still needed a place in Fairbanks, where he not only works but is also very attached to the community. Sitting in his tiny house, he looked perfectly at home. “This is all I need,” he says.

Though it’s only 200 square feet, the home doesn’t actually feel that small. With exposed timbers and tongue-and-groove spruce paneling, it almost feels like you’re in the forest. Six-foot-wide French doors overlook the Alaska Range, where the sun sets early on a cold winter day.

While tiny homes have become trendy in the Lower 48, they’re nothing new in Alaska. Not in concept, at least. Alaskans have long lived in shelters that are easy to build and easy to heat, not just by preference but out of necessity.

“Small and warm is an Alaska tradition,” Jack says.

Mobility is another Alaska tradition, with many families moving to fish camps and hunting camps for part of the year. That was one reason Jack built his house on a trailer – it can go anywhere. His partner has family in Kotzebue and a fish camp outside the northwest Arctic village.

“My thought was we could put it on a barge and take it up to camp or anywhere to have a place to get away.”

That meant the house had to be not just small but also light. At less than 10,000 pounds, it fits on the road and can be pulled with a pickup.

As a vocal advocate for sustainable housing, Jack also wanted to make sure his house followed the principles of good building science. That meant local materials, an energy efficient building envelope and healthy air.

First and foremost, as he always tells clients, is the building envelope. The timber frame structure employs the same REMOTE (REsidential Membrane Outside insulation TEchnique) wall that was used for the CCHRC building, with six inches of foam board outside of the wall. Placing the insulation on the exterior prevents heat loss through the timbers and ensures all the wood on the inside stays warm and dry, avoiding problems like mold and rot that plague many Alaska homes.

Going hand-in-hand with insulation is ventilation. While many homes in Alaska use heat recovery ventilators to keep the air healthy, Jack’s system is a little different.

“I get my ventilation from the toilet.”

But not in a smelly way. The waterless toilet is part of an innovative system being applied in rural homes without piped water and sewer. The toilet separates solids and liquids and uses a fan to dry the solids and eliminate odor. Because the fan runs continuously, it provides enough exhaust-side ventilation for the small home. On the supply side, fresh air comes through the range hood and a second vent in the loft can be opened for extra air.

The wastewater system, called Portable Arctic Sanitation Solution, was developed by CCHRC in partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and others to improve sanitation in rural Alaska. Turns out it also works pretty well in cabins and tiny homes.

Jack’s phone-booth-sized bathroom also contains a shower and urinal. Next to the bathroom, along the back side of the house, is the kitchen with an induction cooktop, microwave and refrigerator. Nothing is large, but it’s all large enough.

“Living here makes you realize how little you need,” Jack says.

He looked out the window at the rose-colored horizon as a small Toyo heater purred in the corner. According to an energy model, his house should use less than 60 gallons of fuel oil a year. Affordable to heat, affordable to build and affordable to insure, it provides what he needs at this point in life.

Plus, he can see both the mountains and the aurora from his bedroom loft. And isn’t that the whole point of living in Alaska?

Molly Rettig is communications manager at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks and writes about science and technology for various publications. For more info, visit cchrc.org.