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Smart design creates successful housing units

Canada’s first recycled shipping container housing development, in Vancouver, British Columbia, is more attractive — and more successful — than most such projects. (Photo courtesy of Atira Women’s Resource Society)

The concept of utilizing used shipping containers for housing typically conjures up appalling images of transporting people who are marginalized and homeless or at risk of homelessness from one hell hole to another — and obstinate opinions about housing people who are poor in warehouse-type facilities.

Visit Atira Women’s Resource Society’s development nine months post-occupancy, however, and you will meet a group of highly satisfied and diverse women all grinning from ear to ear and extremely pleased and proud to live in their hip, environmentally sensitive and award-winning homes located in Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside, Japantown neighborhood.

In August 2013 Atira Women’s Resource Society cut the proverbial red ribbon, celebrating the opening of its brand new, visually stunning, recycled shipping-container housing development.

Building the first multi-dwelling containerized housing project in Canada was no easy feat, and required tremendous commitment, visionary thinking and a huge leap of faith on the part of Atira and its funding partners.

Stepping back from the stereotypical view of container housing and with a bit of lateral thinking, what looks like a ravaged old shipping container is actually an ideal and ready-made modular superstructure and building exoskeleton.

Made from extremely durable Corten steel, containers — with their inherent form, weathering properties and shell-like characteristics — make instant walls, floors and roofs. Upcycling obsolete shipping containers is the ultimate in sustainability, using far fewer materials, less construction waste and far less embodied energy over many conventional forms of construction.

In addition to providing much-needed, nonmarket housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Oneesan container development was conceived as a prototype pilot project aimed at exploring alternatives to existing housing forms with an emphasis on providing sustainable, durable, cost-efficient and high-quality, functional housing.

The use of shipping containers as the basis for habitable structures has been developed and explored throughout the world. These “symbols of globalization” are relatively inexpensive, standardized, structurally sound and in abundant supply. In raw form, containers are dim, hulking boxes but can be highly customizable modular elements of larger structures.

The intent for Oneesan was to challenge stereotypical (and sometimes justified) views of containerized housing as sub-standard, bland and abject living accommodation only fit for temporary housing in developing countries.

Oneesan’s exterior design aesthetics focused on retaining the inherent contemporary square-like characteristics of the containers. Texture was created by marrying the articulated Corten steel corrugated panels with opaque glazing panels and accented dashes of rich, clear-cedar, horizontal siding and soffits. A vibrant color palette gave a nod to the containers’ former life on the high seas and in dockyards throughout the world. The Corten steel corrugated exterior shell provided texture and depth while the contemporary elements transformed typically stigmatized, nonmarket housing from benign and dull into exuberant and dynamic.

Old-growth fir, salvaged from the original heritage house located on the site, and clear cedar were used to accent exterior doorways and principal elevations to soften the industrial, containerized form as well as to pay homage to the heritage of the area that once was abuzz with saw mills and logging yards and was synonymous with the early industrialized and urban development of Vancouver.

Based off the sustainable ideology of “small footprint, large living area,” the Oneesan units consist of about 290 square feet of living space intended for tenants who are able to live independently in a micro-compact, self-contained dwelling unit. Units are studio-style with full bathrooms, kitchens and on-site laundry. The kitchens accommodate a full-size sink, ceramic cooktop and combination microwave, convection oven and exhaust fan.

A recently conducted tenant survey shows overall satisfaction is 92 percent. Tenants commented on the amount of natural light, the unit layout, and the need to learn to make use of vertical space and be organized.

The units cost less than $80,000 each, which may seem high on a per-square-foot basis, but remember, in a small unit, expensive elements such as kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures cover more floor area, driving up per-square-foot costs. It is therefore important to compare costs on a per-unit rather than per-square-foot basis.

It is also important to note that many of the costs associated with this project were site-specific. The lot is small (25 feet by 117 feet) and sandwiched between two heritage buildings. Because of this we were forced to construct two separate buildings with an internal courtyard. In addition, there are no economies of scale in a project of just 12 units.

Oneesan secured its final vindication earlier this year when the development received three separate awards from fellow homebuilders and the design, construction and real estate communities.

Atira is now finalizing a development permit application for a second container project, which will expand the container-housing concept, taking the idea to seven stories and incorporate larger, two-bedroom units.

We believe.

Janice Abbott is CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society and Atira Property Management Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada ( The society works to end violence against women and children. She wrote this commentary at the request of the News Tribune.