Cargotecture – shipping containers find new life

Anywhere home for $20,000

The conversion of a 10-by-20-foot shipping container into an eco-friendly mid-town office is a fine example of workplace recycling.

The corrugated steel container, near the corner of Spadina and St. Claire Ave. in Toronto, has been retrofitted with cool birch veneer interior walls, two built-in work stations, a large five-foot-square window, polished mahogany plywood flooring and a green roof with a patio, giving it the feel of a hip conversion space.
The project has won environmental kudos  by minimizing the use of new materials such as lumber and siding. The container itself would have ultimately been shipped back to Asia, melted down and recycled, an energy-intensive process with high greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think people are really drawn to the idea of reusing these containers because they see four walls, a floor, and a roof ready to go,” said Alex Bartlett,  of Bsq. Landscape Design. “It seems like a crime that they’re so underutilized.”

Bartlett  needed a reusable display booth for landscape design shows, plus he wanted an off-the-grid satellite office in central Toronto. He found Contor Terminals Inc., a metal fabricating company in Mississauga that had experience modifying shipping containers.
The container itself cost around $3,000 and the entire project came in under $20,000, a relative bargain for a self-contained office.
The idea of reusing shipping containers for homes and commercial spaces – a phenomenon called “cargotecture” – has been gaining in popularity recently, due in part to a growing surplus of containers in North America and Europe resulting from the trade imbalance with Asia.
Over the past several years, shipping containers have been used for everything from student housing in Holland, to live-work studios in London’s Container City, to a marketplace in the Ukraine that’s home to 16,000 vendors.
So what’s the appeal? They’re durable, stackable, and – depending on your perspective – attractive for their rugged simplicity, proponents say.
Plus, they’re built to withstand just about anything.
“They’d probably support a family of elephants,” said Keith Dewey, a Victoria-based designer who built his own home using eight shipping containers.
Since finishing his home in 2007, Dewey’s firm, Zigloo.ca, has completed five other container-home projects and garnered plenty of media coverage along the way. The concept seems to be gaining momentum – he has four more projects lined up this year – but it wasn’t always so hip.
“When we first started, there was definitely a perception that the containers were just plain ugly,” Dewey said. “I had some neighbours ask if they could see my design plans before they marched down to city hall.”
The end product was a stylish three-storey home that looks both modern and utterly original. Dewey – whose house features bamboo cabinets, heated floors, and a staircase salvaged from a battleship docked in Esquimalt Harbour – cites the green benefits as a key motivation behind the project.
“In our consumerist culture, the shipping container is a by-product of our needs. They’ve become a natural resource,” he said, noting that all of the containers used for his home were at their end of their usable life.
While there are lots of benefits to reusing containers, Joel Egan, co-founder of Seattle-based HyBrid Architecture and creator of the term “cargotecture”, says there are some drawbacks that should be considered.
“They say that form follows function, but with a container the form is fixed and that can be a bit of a challenge,” he said. “Some spaces don’t want to be seven feet clear on the inside, or 15 feet clear on the inside.”
Cost is another consideration. While the shipping container has been suggested as a panacea for the affordable housing crisis, Egan – whose firm has built nearly a dozen container units since 2003 – cautions that the end cost may not be a low as people might expect.
“That’s a common misperception,” Egan said. “They’re cheap until you cut into them. The cost of containers can be triple to quadruple the cost of what they are just sitting on the dock.”
Still, he says, “they make sense for the right applications, particularly those in harsher environments, which Canada has plenty of.”
Despite its growing popularity on the west coast, cargotecture is relatively unheard of in the Ontario market. Dwight Doerksen, owner of Toronto-based Ecopods, hopes to change that, particularly for the cottage country niche market.
Doerksen’s firm started building 160-square-foot prototype units two years ago, positioning them on rural properties and inviting people to try them out. He’s since incorporated a 20-foot glass wall on one side, which is hydraulically hinged.
“It really opens the space up and brings the outside in,” Doerksen said.
He started his first large-scale project, a 720-square-foot recreational home near Haliburton, fabricated from four shipping containers. The house will feature a green roof, soy-based insulation, and will be powered entirely by solar panels.
Doerksen has had a lot of inquiries, he said, though largely from south of the border, and his single unit Ecopod has been shown at several events around Toronto.
The project in Haliburton will cost around $100 per square foot for the pre-built structure. Doerksen expects the cost for the final move-in dwelling – including foundation and septic system – will be under $150 per square foot, which he hopes will put it well within the consumer market for recreational homes.
“We look at it as being competitive with traditional wood construction,” he said, “with a much smaller environmental footprint, and that’s ultimately the selling feature.”

9 Responses

  1. Hi, been researching cost effective “Green” Living spaces. Saw some portable “Box” houses being designed in Japan, this is taking the idea to a new level. Love the look of the office space. I am from Hawaii and have heard relatives of mine are living in Moloka’i out of a storage container (though, probably not in this stylish a matter). All I can say is that these containers being reused in any creative means is a good thing, regardless of the cost(which is still significantly lower than a new build). I’ll be researching the “Yurt” in a moment, but also have coveted the recycled rubber tire homes and we will see which idea wins out…..we still have to buy the plot of land we will try to build on though.

  2. I have dedicated a whole section to Container Homes. I hope the site will take off and spark some topics about retrofitting and experiences. The part of the forum that I am waiting to take off is the image gallery because I am hoping to get some great ideas for my own home.

  3. I would not be constrained to dwell in a structure termed a “yurt.” How would a “yurt” handle serious weather? I can easily imagine FEMA issuing cargo housing and getting lasting results. Imagine all the cargo housing that could go to that corrupt country of Haiti. But “yurts?” Just saying the word gives met he “yips.” Regarding the advantage of lower cost, I am reminded of a friend who once bragged about getting free tomato soup by going to Wendy’s and ordering a bowl of hot water, adding ketchup, and PRESTO, tomato soup. What a nut. Yes, “yurts” certainly are a cheaper way to go. By all means, live in what amounts to being a giant felt hat box. Go with God. By the way, a cargo container has more weight bearing power than a damnable “yurt.” And “stacking” is a pro, not a con. It’s always the “yurts” with you people, carrying your water bottles and yoga mats. I hate the word “yurt” almost as much as I detest the word “hoodie.”

  4. The container houses in the video looks great from the inside but the exterior shell of the container could be covered with something so it doesn’t look so industrial. However the price seems to be reasonable. I would never guess in past that shipping containers can be transformed into beautiful buildings though. These new creative ideas in house architecture always impress me.

  5. These containers have some insulation to begin with and reefer units are very well insulated. One relative bought an insulated reefer unit including the power pack for the freezer unit as a garage and work shop. Her sports car goes into the back half withthe big doors and the work shop was in the other end. The built in generator provided power and heat . Up here we see winter temps as low as -30C Regular containers only have 3-4 cm or so of insulation

  6. IMO, $100+ per square foot is OUTRAGEOUS! … and $20K for an office is an indulgence. I can set up an Yurt for around $40 per square foot, and the entire dwelling (house or “office”) is portable! Not only that, but shipping containers are designed to be STACKED, and the roof/tops are not “load bearing”, so they can’t be buried or have much weight put on them (think SNOW, pooled rain, etc.) without reinforcement. Caveat Emptor.

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