From garage suites to apartment buildings, Edmonton's shipping container companies get creative with small spaces

Edmonton's first shipping building container apartment building is nearing completion.

Edmonton's first shipping building container apartment building is nearing completion. SHAUGHN BUTTS / POSTMEDIA

From the inside, Satesh Narine and Maria Madsen’s new garage suite looks like a regular apartment, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area, laundry machines and modern kitchen. Strategically placed furniture and a space-saving table make the tiny home seem bigger, but the suite’s real secret lies in the walls, which were made from three shipping containers stacked on top of each other. Shipping containers carry goods from China to the West Coast, but most of them retire once they arrive in Canada because it’s cheaper for companies to build new ones. As in other parts of the world, shipping container homes are becoming more popular in Edmonton and the companies who make them are expanding into other markets and taking on more ambitious, multi-storey projects. Daniel Engelman, who co-owns the Edmonton shipping container home company Honomobo, said their production has increased dramatically during the past year, from about a dozen homes per year to 50. “Definitely faster than we expected,” he said. People from 96 countries have reached out to Honomobo, which has projects planned for Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Colorado, and even Inuvik, N.W.T. (That one will have to be shipped on a barge that leaves once a year.) Many of Honomobo’s homes are going to British Columbia and California, where there is lots of money flowing and high demand for housing in cities like San Francisco. Compared to other cities, it can be easier for companies to build container homes in Edmonton, Engelman said. In Vancouver, the permit process can take six months to a year, but in Edmonton that timeline is typically much shorter.

New zoning regulations passed by Edmonton’s city council in July, which will take effect Sept. 1, permit garage and garden suites in low-and medium-density residential zones. (Previously, the suites were discretionary, so city development officers could approve or refuse them, and neighbours could appeal.)

AJ Slivinski in the show suite of Edmonton’s first shipping building container apartment building, which is nearing completion. This two-bedroom apartment is two 12×60-foot shipping containers side by side. SHAUGHN BUTTS / POSTMEDIA “I think there’s a huge market for this,” said AJ Slivinski, owner of Step Ahead Properties, which is building Westgate Manor, the city’s first shipping container apartment building at 16315 96A Ave.

The 20-unit apartment building was built with 48 shipping containers is currently under construction. The Calgary company Ladacor Advanced Modular Systems, which has also built a hotel in Bruderheim, Alta., out of shipping containers, is handling the construction. Slivinski said the plan is to have residents move in Oct. 1. Getting the apartment complex built hasn’t been easy. The company had to spend $100,000 to bring the landscaping up to code, upgrade the storm sewer for $60,000, negotiate the number of parking stalls required by the city, and delay construction because of all the rain this summer. But Slivinski said he expects more developers and homeowners will take advantage of shipping containers’ benefits. Honomobo is also at work on a multi-level apartment building, which they expect to be built this fall or early spring in the Queen Mary Park neighbourhood. Thanks to off-site construction, container homes can be built quickly and with minimal disruption to neighbours. Narine’s garage suite, which was built by the Edmonton firm novhäus, took just three months to finish after the containers were placed on his lot in March. Container homes are also very sturdy and designed to withstand the elements. With proper insulation, they can be quieter than normal homes and warm during the winter months. Shipping containers don’t always live up to their reputation as cheap, fast and eco-friendly options, though. It’s true that there’s a large supply of used shipping containers available, but they need to be extensively cleaned as they could have been used to transport toxic materials. Some homeowners even opt to buy new containers, which defeats the purpose of recycling used steel. According to Slivinski, 150 people attended an open house for Westgate Manor’s show home in late July. Though the company has been targeting millennial tenants who work on 170 Street, many of the people who showed up at the open house were seniors looking to downsize. Narine said he could see himself living in his garage suite eventually, though he has yet to convince his wife. He was drawn to the environmental benefits of building with shipping containers and he supports infill because he sees it as a way to make living in neighbourhoods like Brookside, where he has resided since 1998, more accessible.“It’s a great neighbourhood,” he said. “We feel we’re very fortunate, but it would be nice to share it with another family.”

This garage suite in Brookside was made by Edmonton company novhäus from three shipping containers. Regulation changes will make it easier for developers and homeowners to build garage and garden suites like this in mature neighbourhoods.

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