In Vancouver's dwindling housing market, converted shipping containers may tick all the right boxes

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      Contrary to the experience of most Lower Mainlanders, Randy Bens has seen little effect from Snowmageddon on his daily commute. The New Westminster–based architect estimates that, on an average day, it takes him 30 seconds to reach his place of work—two minutes with heavy foot traffic.

      Since November, Bens has been running his eponymous building-design business from a 350-square-foot container office situated in his back yard. Boasting a sizable window, warm birch panelling, and a fully functioning powder room and kitchenette—with an equally decked-out exterior clad in yellow cedar—the cozy, light-filled space regularly plays host to meetings between Bens, his colleagues, and a rotating roster of clients.

      “It’s a very pleasant place to work, for sure,” he tells the Straight by phone. “It’s very calm, super quiet.”

      Bens sourced the 28-foot case—which he had shaved down from its original length of 40 feet—from Richmond-based ContainerWest Manufacturing Ltd., which offers new, castoff, and modified shipping containers for residential and commercial use. After comparing the costs of private, on-site office solutions such as prefabricated coach houses and a renovation that entailed adding a separate entrance to his basement, he found that a converted shipping container proved least expensive.

      The architect was also drawn to the vessel’s modular nature—he designed the interior himself—and the sturdiness of its material. “We wanted to be able to take the building with us,” says Bens, referring to a move to a larger site in the near future, “and we really liked the durability of the steel box.”

      While Bens’s back yard office may seem innovative, shipping-container spaces have long been employed by Vancouverites. For example, ContainerWest has been providing container offices for industry workers in B.C. and Alberta since 1977. But the concept is becoming much more popular: last year, the company unveiled a customizable container garden suite in response to consumer demand. Measuring up to 460 square feet, the rooms may be used as a guesthouse, home gym, and more.

      Dean Olund, president of ContainerWest, chalks the new interest up to a need for additional space at a fair cost. “In the Lower Mainland, it’s definitely the price,” he says by phone. “People are looking for an increase in density, which I think most municipalities are in favour of.”

      Randy Bens's 350-square-foot container office includes a fully functioning powder room and kitchenette.
      ContainerWest/Randy Bens Architect

      In 2013, Vancouver welcomed the country’s first multidwelling container project when the Atira Women’s Resource Society opened Oneesan, a 12-unit development in the Downtown Eastside that houses vulnerable women aged 55 and over. The local nonprofit has a larger, seven-storey social-housing complex planned for the Strathcona neighbourhood, which is slated to open next year. Like Oneesan, its construction will involve the incorporation of recycled shipping cases obtained from the Port of Vancouver.

      Other outside-the-box usages of shipping containers include the “Green Tank”, a pair of shamrock-green vessels at East Van’s Trillium North Park where community-oriented classes and workshops are held, and the mobile receptacle bar from which Good Company Lager, a startup headquartered in Railtown, serves its craft beer.

      Daniel Engelman, cofounder of the Edmonton-based Honomobo, which produces prefab shipping-container homes for clients across Western Canada, believes container dwellings are a response to the lack of affordable housing options plaguing many urban centres. Since launching the company last spring, Engelman says he’s received more than 12,000 inquiries from 74 countries.

      “I see it as being part of a generational shift that’s happening in housing, where people have a focus on efficient spaces and they want to live close to the action,” he explains in a phone interview. “I think a modular build like this, which is efficient and cost-effective in that it’s a smaller house, is the future.”

      Honomobo operates showrooms in both Edmonton and Kelowna, where residents have thus far embraced the startup’s compact, 207- to 1,380-square-foot homes, says Engelman. The studios and one- to three-bedroom buildings, which may be used for anything from laneway homes to rental properties to multigenerational housing, are crafted using recycled shipping containers that arrive from China carrying third-party goods like furniture and electronics.

      The 40-by-8-foot boxes are transformed at a factory in Edmonton, where they’re outfitted with medium-quality to high-end finishes, efficient HVAC systems, and even solar-ready capabilities that may facilitate net-positive energy returns. Over 95 percent of every home is manufactured indoors, which minimizes waste, improves the quality of construction, and reduces assembly times significantly by removing unpredictable variables such as weather conditions and product delivery times.

      All the buyer has to do is secure the necessary permits, lay down the foundation, and prepare access to water, sewage, and power services.

      “That’s kind of the triad of construction,” says Engelman. “You can only have two of three: quality, build, and price. Hence, one of them has to suffer. But in markets like Vancouver, we can actually win on all three fronts.”

      Honomobo's container homes features clean, minimalist finishes such as quartz countertops and vinyl plank flooring.
      Jason Babakaiff

      Engelman and his crew are preparing to showcase their popular H04 model—a roomy, two-bedroom unit that features floor-to-ceiling windows—at the BC Home + Garden Show, which happens at BC Place from next Wednesday to Sunday (February 22 to 26). There, Honomobo will also debut the OBO, a 100-square-foot studio that, according to Engelman, doesn’t require permits and can be employed as a self-contained office, workshop, or fitness space, for example.

      While shipping containers have their benefits, they haven’t been immune to criticism. Michael Geller, a local property developer, architect, and urban planner, notes that, although container homes show promise, it can be expensive to clean and insulate the metal boxes and bring them up to code. Oftentimes, he explains, multiple shipping containers must be welded together during construction, which may heighten the final price tag.

      “When you look at the cost of doing all of this and the end product, many people have found that it ends up making more sense to simply go into a factory and create a purpose-built module,” he says by phone.

      Case in point: a city-operated modular microsuite development nearing completion at 1500 Main Street that will accommodate up to 80 homeless people as they await permanent housing. Although a shipping-container design was among the proposals submitted by various building companies, civic bosses ultimately selected a prefab model erected from scratch due to its cost-effectiveness.

      Geller also cautions that container dwellings should not be considered the be-all and end-all of affordable-home solutions. Tackling Vancouver’s housing crisis in a meaningful way, he argues, requires a diverse building supply, action from all levels of government, and partnerships between private and public sectors. “In my opinion, they [shipping containers] are not the answer to creating a significant stock of affordable housing,” he says.

      Still, Geller acknowledges the appeal of shipping-container spaces and the role they may play in helping to ease the city’s real-estate woes. In addition, he reveals that he, like many others, is fascinated by the upcycling potential of shipping containers, which may help divert millions of decommissioned boxes from junkyards around the world. It’s this same preoccupation that, in part, inspired Bens to look to the industrial casings when constructing his home office.

      “It’s hard not to find them interesting,” says Bens, “taking these steel shipping cans and changing them into something they were never intended to be used for.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.