British Columbia

Building with containers has few advantages, architect says

Shipping container buildings have captured the imaginations of many. They're seen as a cheap way to get affordable housing. Vancouver is home to one such building, but one architect has his doubts.

Buildings made of shipping containers seem like a cheap way to get affordable housing. Really?

The Atira Women's Resource Society's shipping container building on Alexander Street. Atira says the building provided 12 low cost units, but one architect thinks shipping container buildings are a poor solution to social housing needs. (Negar Mojtahedi/CBC)

An architect says the trend of buildings made of shipping containers — which has gained some traction in Vancouver — isn't the housing solution it's often made out to be.

Mark Hogan, with the San Francisco-based firm OpenScope, says that while shipping container buildings may have limited use as temporary structures, using them for mass housing and other purposes makes no sense.

"There's an idea that this is a very cheap way to do things and it's like a stack of Legos and you can arrange them however you like, and that's what many of these renderings you see on the Internet lead you to believe," he said.

Hogan says that while container structures do have their uses, they're not some sort of cure-all that can solve affordable housing crises in Vancouver or other places. In fact, they may cause more problems than they solve.

Major problems

In a widely-circulated blog post, Hogan claims there are a few major problems with shipping container structures.

First, they require substantial insulation, which takes away from the already small amount of space.

Second, tall container structures need a lot of concrete, and a powerful crane to do stacking work. This increases costs.

Third, utilities and mechanical systems, especially heating and air conditioning, are needed in the all-steel buildings. These also take up a lot of room, particularly headspace.

And finally, the "green" benefits of these structures are often greatly overblown, because many containers aren't recycled for construction. It's often cheaper and easier to buy new ones which have not been used in transportation because they don't require cleaning.

"They've been outlined as a solution to mass housing around the world … but they really just don't work for that," Hogan said.

So why are they so popular? Hogan says it's because many clients are sold on the idea of these structures without understanding the realities, and architects often design them thinking about aesthetics first, not practicalities.

What about Atira?

In Vancouver, the most notable structure built of container's is the Atira Housing's 12-unit structure on Alexander Street that provides social housing for women.

Atira claims the building cost less than $80,000 per unit.

"That is very cheap, but they're also building units that are only two metres wide," he said. "There's a lot of constraints. And I think that in very specific cases like that, and if those numbers are true, then that's a real accomplishment."

Despite this possible success, Hogan says these structures should not be seen as an easy solution to Canada's social housing needs.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Container buildings: towers of power or houses of pain?

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly suggested that Mark Hogan supported tearing down buildings made from shipping containers. It has now been rephrased to more accurately represent his views.