Now shipping containers are being repurposed into stylish homes that developers plan to roll out in housing-crunched communities across Canada.
A three-storey development in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood uses just 12 of the millions of containers decommissioned after a life on the sea of five to 10 years.
What started as a pilot project on the Downtown Eastside is expanding in the city — and the same model is set to be stacked up in aboriginal communities in British Columbia, Alberta and Nunavut.
Marnie Crassweller lives in a "studio" container. A 285-square-foot suite home with an ocean view, in-suite washer-dryer, kitchen and private bathroom.
"I find it to be a beautiful suite," she said, gesturing to her home.
She said she often has to dispel misconceptions with people who ask questions like: "Isn't it cold? Isn't is like a dungeon?"
"And as you can see, it's not."
Janice Abbott, the CEO of social housing agency Atira Property Management Inc., described the container construction as "building with Lego blocks," saying it's a fast, environmentally-friendly and — presumably — a cheaper way to build homes.
"You have to think of them as exoskeletons or substructures," said Abbott.
Each container is fitted for plumbing and wiring and is insulated and drywalled.
Abbott said the containers are built with high-grade steel that is much stronger than wood, and more than one can be fused together to create multi-bedroom suites.
Her agency has studied the cost of container housing and believes it to be a cheaper.
From the front, the narrow three-storey container development is a modern complex with large windows, but from the side, you can see the ridged steel of what was once a shipping container.
The project, completed in 2013, was Canada's first development of recycled shipping containers and the spaces are so in-demand that a second complex is being planned a few blocks away.
The concept is quintessentially Vancouver, where the overheated real estate market has forced creative housing solutions in small spaces.
But Abbott said the idea is catching on in communities across Canada where suitable housing is direly needed.
Her agency is looking at building container developments on six or seven reserves across the country, with help from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
Abbott said the next development will likely be on First Nations land near Tofino, on Vancouver Island, and she is working on choosing the next site in Alberta, from a number of interested First Nations.
She is also in discussions with leaders of an Inuit settlement in Baker Lake, Nunavut, which gets almost all of its supplies shipped with containers that are never returned, because it's cheaper to build new in China than return them.
"The goal is to try and demonstrate that this kind of building technology works in all these different climate zones."
Abbott said Atira is looking at reserves, because there are ongoing issues of housing shortages on many reserves.
She said there are many other reasons to use containers.
"They can be recycled, obviously, but the higher or best use is to repurpose them and reuse them."
Other key expenses
Gordon Price, a civic issues expert and former Vancouver councillor who now directs the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said he's skeptical of the benefits.
He said he can't see the savings being significant enough to make it worthwhile, because there are many other key expenses, particularly land costs.
"It's certainly not a revolutionary solution," he said.
For Crassweller, a recovering alcoholic who was homeless for fives years, said the suite is a "sanctuary."
As part of her agreement to live in the building, she mentors at-risk women under 24 who are being housed in single-room accommodation next to her building.
"I was pretty destructive for too many years," she said. "Now I'm here, just trying to step up to the plate, trying to move towards working and being self-supportive."
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