Atira builds Canada’s first container housing complex

Builders love old shipping containers. Structurally sound, if not a little ugly, they can be turned into instant structures. Drive-through banks or coffee kiosks come to mind. They’ve even been turned into single family homes. Now, a Vancouver non-profit is going one step further, creating Canada’s first multi-unit housing complex comprised entirely of recycled containers.

The ambitious plan calls for 12 containers stacked three boxes high mounted or “keyed in” to each other as they are aboard a ship. Connected by an external staircase, the 12 containers will be split into two to create accommodation for 24 tenants.

“I’d been to presentations on container housing before and I thought it was cool,” says Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Centre, a Vancouver non-profit which provides affordable housing to women at risk. “I also like the idea of recycling something that was in a junk yard.”

Atira erected its last building, a 14 storey structure in concrete and steel, at a cost of $ 270,000 per unit or $ 843 per square foot. The present container- only building costs $ 85,000 per unit or $ 266 per square foot. That allows Atira to charge a monthly rent of $ 375 – that’s the price of a welfare cheque and is well below market value.  That means Atira’s clientele can afford a place to live. Renting out the top units at higher prices to the better-heeled will subsidize the lower floors.

The boxes were modified in a local shipyard and stacked on site by crane. Turning them into suites presented unique challenges says architect and engineer Barry McGinn. Steel studs, spray foam insulation and drywall; that was the easy part, he says. But how do you cut out the side of these boxes for windows and doors and still maintain structural integrity?  Extensive cross-bracing around the openings was the answer. In addition, both ends were cut out to provide floor-to-ceiling windows. The windows flood the rooms with light and makes them less…well…boxy. At 320 square feet they’re small but brilliantly designed with a micro kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities.

Nobody’s lived in a community of containers before, at least not in Canada, and Abbott is aware she’s breaking new ground. Vancouver’s Planning and Building Departments are on board but the jury is still out on public acceptance. Vancouverites like the stereotypical bungalow and white picket fence. “I don’t care about stigma,” says Abbott. “I just want to provide housing for people in need.”  The complex is slated to open later this summer.

“Shipping containers make a good starting point for any type of building,” says Barry McGinn. With New York, London and the world’s other large cities now approving and constructing 300 square foot apartments, albeit up-scale and loaded with goodies, are container communities such a long way off?