As a country with 28.4% of its GDP coming from the export of goods (from energy products, metals, forestry products, etc), it's safe to say that Canada is home to its fair share of shipping containers. The good news: Canadians are increasingly converting these shipping containers into homes.
So what's so great about shipping containers? For starters, they're constructed to carry heavy loads, and can resist the harsh conditions of ocean liners and outdoor storage. However, they're typically decommissioned after 5 to 10 years of use.
Designed with a four point load in mind, shipping containers are easily supported by simple concrete piers, and since they’re already assembled, the cost of onsite specialty labour (that would typically be associated with steel frame construction) is drastically reduced, if not eliminated. It's estimated that around a third of Canada’s solid waste comes from the construction industry, so it’s easy to see the appeal of this environment-friendly alternative, compared to the traditional wood-frame construction that produces a lot of waste.
There’s no shortage of examples of cottages and single family homes built around one or several shipping containers. In fact, companies who specialize in container conversion, like MekaWorld (the makers the Alp320 structure pictured above), are capitalizing on this trend, providing built-out solutions, which use containers as construction modules.
Atira Women’s Resource Society, located in British Columbia, provides affordable housing options for women, among other services, and they've taken advantage of this new popular construction technique.
In 2013, Atira Women's Resource Centre unveiled Canada’s first social housing development constructed entirely of recycled shipping containers. This project used 12 shipping containers (stacked 3 high), each turned into a self-contained residential unit. While the spaces are modest (at around 290 square feet each), these units are modern and light filled, and equipped with everything a tenant might need, from appliances to in-suite laundry. Atira was able to complete the project for a total cost of $82,500 per unit.
After the success of this project, Atira Women's Resource Society is now proposing the largest container housing project in North America to date: At 7 storeys high, this new proposed project would provide 26 residences (offering a combination of studios and 2 bedroom units). Currently, Atira is waiting rezoning approval for the Hawks Avenue property, which is close to schools and parks, making it an ideal location for the project. If approved, it will set an impressive precedent for the use of this construction method moving forward.
As with any trend receiving this much hype, container housing is also meeting it's fair share of criticism, and the construction method is not without it's limitations. Some proposals suggest sky high towers of cantilevered units, and while they are resilient, in reality they're only constructed to be piled 9 high with loads supported at the corners, not midway through the structure. Additionally, many projects utilize new containers, which, while still fairly cost-effective negates the sustainability aspect. Atira's proposal takes these limitations into account, staying under the 9 storey maximum and stacking containers in ways which minimize the need for added structural support, and makes use of containers that have already seen years of use and would otherwise end up as waste.
It's an example of a project that refuses to compromise between cost, sustainability and social impact. By thinking beyond traditional construction techniques, Atira is creating spaces that are not only affordable, but desirable too. While shipping container construction isn't a be-all, end-all solution, this is the kind of application that's effective.
Researched and written by Miranda Corcoran, an Industrial Design and Digital Media student at OCAD University.