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Shipping container homes find new space in Edmonton

Andrew Seale

[Artist’s rendering of a new shipping container home on the Honomobo Facebook page.]

A new Edmonton venture is looking to help homeowners earn passive income by putting renters up in shipping containers-turned-backyard apartments.

Honomobo is selling pre-fabricated shipping container garage suites – self contained living spaces – that comply with the city’s new rules announced last summer. 

Honomobo’s units range from $99,000 for a studio to $147,000 for a two-bedroom with the added cost of about $25,000 for the new garage. According to estimates from co-founder Devon Siebenga, it’ll cost about $500 a month for the mortgage, property tax increase, electricity and water but comes with the potential bonus of a $20,000 affordable housing grant from the city.

But the company is by no means the first to snatch headlines for building with shipping containers. The trend of micro homes has seen a serious spike across Canada over the past two and a half years, says Robert Leonardo, who co-founded micro-dwelling resource not-for-profit Tiny Home Alliance Canada with his wife Leanne in 2014.

“There was about three or four (companies building micro or tiny homes) when I first started and within six months there was a whole bunch of startups,” says Leonardo who defines micro homes as dwellings under 100-square-feet and tiny homes as dwellings between 100- and 400-square-feet. “As of April, our list has got to be well into the 50s.”

Several are cabin builders or manufacturers that formally focused on turning shipping containers into on-site offices, but when they saw an up-tick in the tiny home trend, re-focused their efforts on residential spaces. Others have started fresh to capitalize on the movement.

Tiny Home Alliance, which has been collecting insight via a survey, found that of those who said they were or might be interested in living in a home less than 400-square-feet, 29 per cent were between the ages of 26 to 35 and 28 per cent were in the 36 to 50 category. 36 per cent of those interested in tiny homes were in the middle class $40,000 to $70,000-salary range.

“The middle class is being squeezed out,” says Leonardo. “I know what that’s like, I was earning an average middle class income while living in Ontario and had no luxuries… we just couldn’t afford it – rising prices, condo fees, within a year of buying our (900-square-foot) condo, our bills were going up by $200 to $800 every year.”

While it’s causing people to rethink how much space they need – in Leonardo’s case, he and his wife moved to a hamlet in Saskatchewan and are getting ready to build their small home – it’s also creating challenges for policy makers.

“Building codes, municipal laws, bylaws, regulations, electrical codes, all these things have been tailored to a standard North American type of construction,” laments the tiny home advocate. “Even if you build a home that is to safe and affordable standards, you’re still challenged by municipalities not quite understanding or wanting it.”

In Ontario, regulations say a studio must be 269-square-feet, 344-square-feet for a one bedroom and 441-square-feet minimum for a two bedroom. There’s a petition launched to adjust regulations in Ontario and both Yellowknife, NWT and Sherbrooke, Que. have seen momentum around adjusting minimum home rules this month.

Shipping containers only offer ‘minimum’ room

Honomobo’s shipping container homes are pre-built to permit regulations and range from 352-square-feet to 640-square-feet.

But not everyone sees small homes as the saviour to overvalued housing markets and larger-than-life living spaces.

Mark Hogan, a principal architect at OpenScope Studio in San Francisco recently penned a critique of the movement and why shipping containers “are not a ‘solution’ for mass housing.”

“With only 7’ clear (2.1 m) inside a built-out container, you are left with the building code minimum room width as your typical condition,” he writes. “It’s hardly an ideal width, and it is not difficult to ship wider modular units: modular home builders do it all the time.”

And then there’s insulation.

“All surfaces of the container need to be insulated, and this means either building a new set of walls on the inside or outside of the container,” he adds.  

He goes on to point to the challenges of stacking the containers, which will need support columns unless they’re stacked perfectly on top of one another, reinforcing them and space for utilities, before turning to recycling, one of the cornerstones of why using old shipping containers has gained many advocates.

“Part of the container narrative is that it’s ‘green’ because we have a surplus of containers that can be reused,” he writes. “This is somewhat true, but in reality many existing container projects use brand new containers from China – which are still very cheap to buy – used containers need to be thoroughly cleaned because there is a risk they may have been used to transport something toxic in the past.”

His final verdict is a lesson any Canadian should keep in mind before looking at a shipping container home:

“Architecture is more than structure though and structure on its own is not particularly expensive – especially when you are building a space as small as a shipping container, so the savings here are minimal,” he writes. “Relatively untrained people can build a room that size of simple wood framing in a day without needing to rent a crane or learning how to weld for about the same cost – or less – than buying a used container.”