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January 01, 2016

condoscapes: Container living

Shipping containers may be a new alternative to condo construction

Richard White

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For decades one of the key decisions for savvy condo buyers has been “Do I want to live in a concrete or wood building?” Concrete buildings are quieter, fire-resistant and can be built higher thus offering better views. On the other hand, wood-framed multi-family buildings’ biggest benefit to the purchaser is that they are cheaper. For the developer, the biggest negative of wood-framed buildings was they could only be built four storeys high; but this has been increased to six storeys recently.

However, there soon may be a new kid in town — container buildings. Around the world, reusing heavy steel sea containers as building blocks (think Lego) to create multi-family buildings is all the rage. It is only a matter of time before it happens in Calgary.

In fact, Calgary could well become a leader in contain construction for two reasons. First, as one of North America’s largest inland ports, we have a surplus of sea containers. Yes, literally thousands of sea containers arrive in Calgary every month via rail or truck from China and other countries full of everything from electronics to furniture. With nothing to send back they become surplus.

Second, Calgary-based Ladacor has developed an “Advanced Modular System,” a proprietary modular construction method that allows for high quality container construction which meets if not exceeds all Canadian Safety Approval standards and can be used to construct buildings up to 12-storeys high. Ladacor is on the leading edge, having already built the largest container hotel in Canada, are currently in discussion with developers to pilot a multi-family residential building in Alberta. Will it be Edmonton or Calgary?

There are many benefits to container construction for condominiums. Perhaps the biggest being it is very cost effective — even 10 per cent less than wood-framed. It is cost-effective partly because 80 per cent of the on-site activities are moved indoors, which means optimization of materials, labour and reduction of theft and lost hours due to inclement weather. Because it is metal, it is non-combustible making it safer and it doesn’t warp or shrink and allows for superior sound-insulation between units, container buildings are quieter.

When it comes to infill development, neighbours and communities will love the fact that on-site, container-based construction happens 30 to 50 per cent faster than conventional construction, which means significant decrease in the inconvenience of road and sidewalk closures.

Container construction is also environmentally-friendly given the repurposing of surplus shipping containers. From a design perspective, container buildings don’t have to look significantly different current condos both in their exterior or interiors. From the street they can have a funky colourful industrial urban look or they can be clad with vinyl siding to fit with neighbouring suburban homes.

In a nutshell, container condos are “cheaper, faster and better” than conventional condo construction. This should make them very attractive to purchasers and developers. In addition, from a developer’s perspective the buildings are occupied sooner than conventional construction, which means a quicker return on investment.

Calgary, for all of its talk of entrepreneurship and innovation, is still a pretty conservative market when it comes to home buying. It is only in the last decade that Calgarians have really embraced the idea of condo living. Could the next step in Calgary’s urban living evolution be to embrace container living?

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