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House Beautiful: Shipping-container home a case of thinking outside the box

Adam Benning created his dream home — from a recycled shipping container.

Adam Benning created his dream home — from a recycled shipping container.

The 320-square-foot house has everything needed to live comfortably, including a full kitchen, living room, laundry and wraparound, outdoor deck, and a surprisingly spacious feel, despite its small square footage.

Credit goes to smart design features, such as flooding the one-bedroom home with natural light by putting many windows and glass-fronted doors in the 40-foot-long container, which is just eight feet wide.

The container house shares the larger-than-average lot of a character home Benning owns in a quiet Victoria neighbourhood. Since the container home is along the side of the backyard, both homes have privacy and look out to green space instead of each other.

Benning rents out both homes to separate renters, but envisions the day when his children, ages 12 and 14, are grown and he and his wife will downsize and enjoy it for themselves.

“I’ve wanted to do it for a long time and I finally found myself in a fortunate stage of life where I could switch it up and create a sustainable, small-scale building. It’s where I want to go and where we need to go as a society.”

Benning, who has worked in construction for more than 25 years, says he saw lots of waste and inefficient use of resources while working in mid- to high-end renovations. That prompted the Esquimalt man’s quest for a smaller carbon footprint and reduced housing-construction waste — and creation of his own company for clients who share similar values.

West Coast Container Homes uses shipping containers to build both homes and 104-square-foot offices, which are proving ideal for those working from home.

“We realize the need now is just more space, so we designed and built office pods that are multi-use spaces. You can’t live in it, but it’s 100 per cent finished space with doors, windows, flooring and you can plug an extension light in that runs to a house,” he says.

The company has made a number of office pods, while Benning’s own container home has become a prototype for the housing side of his business.

One of Benning’s challenges in building a home from a shipping container was getting the necessary permits from the local municipality. He hopes as more are built, municipalities will see shipping-container homes as a viable option, especially for infill housing.

“Municipalities are not really ready for this yet. But this is a starting point to show what’s possible and hopefully they will see the benefit of this type of building,” adds Benning.

While rare, container homes aren’t new to Victoria.

In fact, the first shipping-container home in Canada was created by Zigloo Studio residential designer Keith Dewey. It used multiple shipping containers to create a two-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home in a small, infill lot in Fernwood in 2006.

Dewey says he now builds about three container homes a year for clients around the world. In B.C., besides the Fernwood home, Dewey completed one on Mayne Island, Fernie and the Sunshine Coast. He says there are about eight he’s aware of in the province.

“It hasn’t turned into a big rush in development,s because it hasn’t proved to be a huge cost savings,” says Dewey.

He estimates that going with a container home as opposed to a traditionally constructed home offers a four per cent savings. Most of that cost reduction is in the shell of the house, but the homes require more expensive insulation, welding costs and engineering approval, he says.

“They appeal to a group of people who appreciate them for their green, recycled nature. The green thinkers, environmentalists are the people who gravitate towards them,” he says.

Benning agrees, adding that when he built his own container home, he only took two loads of rubbish, in a small pickup truck, to the dump.

While he acknowledges container homes don’t offer a significant savings, he was pleased with the final tally for his own container home, especially considering it’s so environmentally friendly.

The cost for Benning’s finished house, built off site, was $125,000, although another $120,000 went to such things as the roof, decking, city fees, electrical, plumbing, excavation and landscaping.

The cost of the container depends on the size, and ranges from $6,000 to $12,000, he says. He said with shipping containers there are two height options: 8.6 feet or 9.6 feet. He went with the latter to ensure the interior had an eight-foot-high ceiling after the insulation and walls were added.

He said he used local suppliers for everything from flooring to cabinetry. Since the space is small and tightly sealed, there’s minimal heat loss. “Not only are we upcycling an existing shipping container, but we’re creating a high-efficiency dwelling.”

In May, a tiny-home village of converted shipping containers opened adjacent to Royal Athletic Park to house people experiencing homelessness. Each unit is 160 square feet and equipped with a bed, desk and refrigerator.

The village was a project of Victoria’s Aryze Developments and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which launched a crowdfunding effort to raise $500,000 to convert 30 shipping ­containers into one-room homes for people living in city parks.

Honeybox Inc. of Victoria has been selling new and used containers since 2009. Owner Adam Hellicar says while his own company hasn’t gotten into the business of creating permitted container homes, it can be a cost-effective housing option for people if they keep “things simple.”

“They have a nice modern look, but the challenge is you need to bring in an engineer and architect to do drawings and bring it to the municipality for approval,” he says.

And as the popularity grows so do the prices — Hellicar notes that a 20-foot-long shipping container that sold last year for $5,000 now costs $7,400.

There are other challenges in this relatively new form of housing. “Often people go to their municipality seeking information about container homes, but there’s no information for them,” he says.

That’s something Benning is hoping will change as public interest increases.

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