Problems cabin building and home construction on permafrost: Fairbanks, Alaska


There are many reasons to avoid building on permafrost

Many years ago I asked myself “should I build on permafrost?”

There were tons of cabins and soon habins springing up all over Goldstream Valley. I bought some upper swamp and built a cabin on a foundation “engineered” by a friend and myself. The cabin is still there but it has moved a lot because I did not take precautions to stabilize the soil underneath. I built directly on the ground. I was a typical broke young man so I didn’t want to pay for gravel. Though the cabin is ok today for it’s current owner, it shows errors I made and shortcomings of building on permafrost.

This foundation in Goldstream Valley fared ok but moved some because it was not prepared properly.

The number one rule for building on permafrost is DON’T BUILD ON PERMAFROST

But if you are going to build of permafrost here are some of the additional costs associated with the cheap land you bought. You will need to purchase Typar fabric roll out under the potential hundreds of yards of gravel you will need for a driveway and building pad. One hundred feet of driveway will cost $2000-3500 if your land is relatively flat and dry. An average large cabin footprint is 16′ x 24′. A good building pad for this structure would be 36′ x 44′ so you can have flat, dry ground to work on and help keep the ground frozen. The pad should be compacted tailings to at least 3′. This is an additional 30-40 yards of material costing $8,000-10,000. Now you build your cabin and in five years are calling around looking for someone to level it even though you took all the good advice about building on permafrost under advisement. A simple cabin leveling or foundation adjustment in Fairbanks, Alaska will cost $1,800. An expensive leveling can cost upwards of $20,000 if the foundation beams need to be replaced. Once, you get your house leveled it will slowly creep back into the swamp causing frustration and more money wasted as you get it leveled again. This scenario is common enough but let’s think about your habin now.

This gravel pad to 35 loads to make a 4 foot deep compacted gravel pad that was about 40 feet x 40 feet. The house built on this has remained relatively stable for nearly 15 years but if soil conditions underneath were less stable the owners may not have been so lucky

The habin is a cabin with running water. Running water requires a septic system. There are basically two options for septic systems on permafrost: a mounded system above ground or an engineered water treatment system made in Fairbanks, Alaska. Both options are bad. The DEC approved, mounded septic is built to fail. I can honestly say that whenever I hear about these system unless they have failed. No one has ever said that they work for more than a handful of years and even if it lasted ten years, you are still looking at replacing it at a price tag of $10,000-15,000 X 2 (X 3…..). The engineered water treatment system for a 2-4 occupancy home costs $20,000 and up not including the gravel pad and related preparations. Now there is another thing to consider when your habin starts sinking back into the swamp- the connection to your septic. Then- is your septic sinking too? Do a little math and building on permafrost adds up to a wasted investment, frustration and even heartbreak when your little home in the valley becomes a nightmare that you try to sell to someone else.

This house in Goldstream Valley was 19 inches out of level. Notice how the wood beams on top are twisting out of place.

This brings us back to the number one rule about building on permafrost DONT” BUILD ON PERMAFROST

With hotter summers and warmer winters we are seeing rapid changes in Goldstream Valley and other low lying areas in and around Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s just a bad idea to build on permafrost.

For more about building on permafrost from another experienced Fairbanks, Alaska builder follow this link…

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