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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,, 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.”

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