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Shipping containers gaining popularity as construction option

Once perceived as a childhood plaything, building blocks have gone big time.

Modular homes built out of shipping containers have blossomed into full-fledged housing options, with several Western Canadian-based companies making inroads into local markets and beyond.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in it now. I think people are starting to look at alternate techniques,” said Charles Lemieux, co-founder of Alberta-based Blocks Modular Corp., which markets containers for residential, commercial and industrial purposes.

“I think the legwork is actually starting to do something. The city is understanding that we can meet architectural guidelines. It’s just getting a product that is competitive – not cheap like what you see on TV where they cut a whole [in the container] and call it a home.”

Blocks Modular’s containers can be used as single- and multi-family homes, as well as work camps and hotel/motel developments. Using one or several of the eight-foot wide containers, which come in 20- or 40-foot versions both, the company is able to create floor plans ranging from simple bachelor suites to two-bedroom, two bathroom models.

Since first gaining popularity as an affordable and adaptable option for vacation homes, Lemieux says he is even now hearing from homeowners looking at the containers as a way of adding a revenue property to their primary residence.

Units needing little or no customization from the company’s standard models can be ready as quickly as a few days, while custom models can take a few weeks.

Once completed, homes are shipped using rail, sea or truck. The company uses helicopters or cargo planes to access more remote areas.

“Timelines are way faster. That’s one of the big selling points right,” said Lemieux of container homes. “One thing is it’s competitive pricing.

The other thing is you can be working on your foundation and we can be building through summer and winter, putting everything together in the shop. So you can attack both ends. You can have your site prep done and we can be working in the shop to get everything else done for the unit itself.”

Along with shorter timelines, Lemieux notes container homes have a smaller environmental footprint than traditional homes, and are more versatile. Built from fully recyclable steel, the containers offer increased protection against fire and mould than traditional building materials, and can be stacked as high as seven units.

The versatility of having a stackable home allows for multi-unit projects; or, as pointed out by Lemieux, the ability for growing families to expand their homes with relative ease.

“It’s a unit that can grow as your budget grows or as your family grows,” he said. “You can start with three 40-foot trailers, which gives you 960 square feet, and then you can have your drawing made up so that in five years you can add to that.”

Blocks Modular Corp. is just one of several companies marketing modular homes using repurposed intermodal shipping containers. Since first gaining notoriety with an appearance on TV’s Dragon’s Den, Saskatchewan-based 3twenty Modular has built and installed an 180-unit for the Department of National Defence in Cold Lake.

Meanwhile, Ladacor, which operates a plant in Saddleview Industrial Park, made headlines earlier this year when it used its proprietary Advanced Modular System to construct a 60-room Days Inn hotel in northern Ontario.

Homeowners are not the only ones looking at repurposing old shipping containers, either. In 2012, the Alberta College of Art + Design hosted an installation from Theo Sims’ called The Candahar, which was a shipping-crate-sized replica of an Irish pub.

In summer 2014, Springboard Performance’s Sunnyside venue dubbed containR hosted events during both fluid Festival and Sled Island.

More recently, Cam Dobranski, the chef/restaurant owner behind popular hot spots such as Brasserie and Winebar Kensington, opened Container Bar late last year. Measuring less than 100 square feet and largely unchanged in appearance from its days sailing the high seas, what the tiny structure lacks in size it’s made up for in popularity.

“It’s kitschy and it’s fun and it’s something Calgary hasn’t had,” said Dobranski of Container Bar, which is located in the alley between Ingear, a jewellery and furniture store, and the three-storey building that holds Winebar Kensington and Brasseries.

After spending just $1,500 on his container, Dobranski says it was a bit of a process to get his idea going. Unlike the ready-made containers offered by companies like Blocks Modular, Dobranski opted to renovate his container himself.

After hiring contractors to take care of the electrical and welding, it was a matter of gaining approval for the business from the City of Calgary – a process that took nearly a year and ended up costing Dobranski $15,000.

Since then, Dobranski says he’s been able to connect with other container owners around the world.

“The cool thing is that people in other cities follow each other and share ideas through social media – people from the U.K. to Austin, Texas and all over the place,” he said. “It would be neat to see the City (of Calgary) put things in place so people could [more easily build using containers].”

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