Are Shipping Containers the Answer to Housing Woes?

'Sea can' housing beginning to catch on in Canada
April 2, 2014 Updated: April 2, 2014

Shipping container housing or “cargotecture” has been touted as a solution to a wide variety of housing shortages, from affordable, sustainable, or on-reserve housing, to homeless shelters.

A handful of companies are now also looking to the containers, or “sea cans,” as a solution to workforce housing shortages in the booming natural resource sector.

The largest company of its kind in Canada, Saskatoon-based 3twenty Modular, has built about 300 container homes for tradespeople across the Prairie provinces in recent years. CEO Bryan McCrea says business is steady and demand increasing.

“As the oil industry continues to grow, the rail industry, pipeline industry, mining industry, and all related sectors, our business will continue to be fuelled by that growth,” says McCrea.

Converting a steel box to a fully functioning home is not much easier than traditional stick-built construction—it too involves everything from framing to electrical and plumbing, insulation and drywalling. 

But there are several unique features that make container homes ideal for workforce housing: they are durable, mould-resistant, stackable, and able to house large numbers of workers on a small plot of land. They are also easy to transport and can be lifted by cranes without damaging their integrity. 

The 40-foot containers can be configured to fit almost any need, from self-contained single-room units to recreation rooms, gymnasiums, walk-in coolers, and even “container villages” such as the Dekalb Market in Brooklyn, NY. 

Such features also make them an attractive option for urban, social, or on-reserve aboriginal housing, something McCrea would consider exploring. 

“There’s a market, particularly in multi-family developments, small condo developments. You can use containers and turn them into pretty trendy but still conventional and affordable living units,” he says. 

Affordable Housing

Last year, Canada’s first recycled shipping container social housing development was built in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to provide homes for women escaping homelessness or unsafe housing. 

The 12-unit structure sits on a standard 25-foot x 119-foot city lot. In addition to the environmental benefits of recycling old shipping containers, each self-contained unit cost a mere $82,500 to build—about a third of the price of traditional wood and concrete housing typically designed for low-income homes.

Other non-profits are also exploring the potential of shipping containers in community development. In Calgary, a proposal is underway to transform a vacant, city-owned plot into a temporary “container village” that mixes art, commerce, and community-building. Community associations hope to eventually turn the space into an affordable housing development.

There are millions of discarded shipping containers sitting unused on docks around the world, and in North America they can be had for around $900 each. But there are some downsides: the coatings and linings used to make them durable for ocean transport as well as the wood flooring often contain a plethora of harmful chemicals and lead-based paints. 

It can be expensive to get rid of these chemicals, with the result that many cargotecture companies use new containers.

McCrea says that although 3twenty intended to use recycled containers initially, they found it was actually cheaper to make them from scratch. “We realized that used containers are not a scalable option for manufacturing—the net benefit of using old containers did not exceed the cost of new ones,” he says.

Sustainable Housing

Design companies and architects are also looking to shipping containers to supply sustainable and affordable residential housing.

Nearly a decade ago, Victoria-based design firm Zigloo was one of the first Canadian companies to achieve this when owner and designer Keith Dewey created his former Victoria home—dubbed “Zigloo Domestique”—from eight 20-foot shipping containers comprising 2,000 square feet of modern living space. 

Dewey designed the house to “entice people to think differently about the way we live” and to demonstrate that “living sustainably doesn’t mean ‘living without,’” says the company website. 

Since then, Zigloo has been looking to container homes as the future of sustainable housing, and has several groundbreaking projects in the works featuring green technologies such as grey water reclamation, solar hot water systems, photovoltaic panels, and green-roof systems.

Dewey has also completed conceptual designs for the world’s largest “CargoSpace Community”—a sustainable neighbourhood development that would utilize over 2,000 shipping containers in a variety of arrangements creating townhouse/condo units, retail spaces, offices, community shared areas and a small hotel.

The development, slated for the town of Devon in Alberta, would also reclaim an old industrial site and bring it back into the community.

As designers find increasingly creative and profitable uses for shipping containers, McCrea expects the industry will blossom in Canada and around the world.

“To us, the future of the building industry in general is building from steel and building modularly—it’s that hybrid that we think is a winning combination,” he says. “We’ll continue to build our business—and welcome the competition.”