Landscape firm turns to 'cargotecture' for eco-friendly office space

July 2, 2010

BRAD BADELT

SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Alex Bartlett takes a break on the roof of his office, a converted shipping container.

Alex Bartlett takes a break on the roof of his office, a converted shipping container.

You might say Bsq Landscape Design’s

conversion of a 10-by-20-foot shipping

container into an eco-friendly mid-town

office is the ultimate example of

workplace recycling.

The corrugated steel container, near

the corner of Spadina and St. Claire

Ave., has been retro-fitted with cool birch veneer interior walls, two built-in work stations, a large five-footsquare

window, polished mahogany plywood flooring and a green roof with a patio, giving it the feel of a hip

conversion space.

The project has won environmental kudos for the Toronto-based landscape design firm by minimizing the use

of new materials such as lumber and siding. The container itself would have ultimately been shipped back to

Asia, melted down and recycled, an energy-intensive process with high greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think people are really drawn to the idea of reusing these

containers because they see four walls, a floor, and a roof ready to

go,” said Alex Bartlett, co-owner of Bsq Landscape Design. “It

seems like a crime that they’re so underutilized.”

Bartlett and his partner, Robert Bolton, started their shipping

container project last year with two goals in mind: they needed a

reusable display booth for landscape design shows, plus they

wanted an off-the-grid satellite office in central Toronto. After

making a few phone calls, they found Contor Terminals Inc., a metal

fabricating company in Mississauga that had experience modifying

shipping containers.

According to Bartlett, the container itself cost around $3,000 while

the entire project came in under $20,000, a relative bargain for a

self-contained office, especially one won a silver award at the 2009

Interior Design Show.

Barlett hopes it will open the door to more container projects for his

company, be it backyard bunkies, studio spaces, or cabanas. “The

office has gotten a lot of positive attention and, for us, it’s been a

great way to showcase our environmental side,” he said. 

The idea of reusing shipping containers for homes and commercial

spaces — a phenomenon called “cargotecture” — has been gaining

in popularity recently, due in part to a growing surplus of containers

in North America and Europe resulting from the trade imbalance

with Asia.

Over the past several years, shipping containers have been used for everything from student housing in

Holland, to live-work studios in London’s “Container City”, to a marketplace in the Ukraine that’s home to

16,000 vendors.

So what’s the appeal? They’re durable, stackable, and — depending on your perspective — attractive for their

rugged simplicity, proponents say. Plus, they’re built to withstand just about anything.

“They’d probably support a family of elephants,” said Keith Dewey, a Victoria-based designer who built his

own home using eight shipping containers.

Since finishing his home in 2007, Dewey’s firm, Zigloo.ca, has completed five other container-home projects

and garnered plenty of media coverage along the way. The concept seems to be gaining momentum — he has

four more projects lined up this year — but it wasn’t always so hip.

“When we first started, there was definitely a perception that the containers were just plain ugly,” Dewey said.

“I had some neighbours ask if they could see my design plans before they marched down to city hall.”

The end product was a stylish three-storey home that looks both modern and utterly original. Dewey — whose

house features bamboo cabinets, heated floors, and a staircase salvaged from a battleship docked in

Esquimalt Harbour — cites the green benefits as a key motivation behind the project.

“In our consumerist culture, the shipping container is a by-product of our needs. They’ve become a natural

resource,” he said, noting that all of the containers used for his home were at their end of their usable life.

While there are lots of benefits to reusing containers, Joel Egan, co-founder of Seattle-based HyBrid

Architecture and creator of the term “cargotecture”, says there are some drawbacks that should be

considered.

“They say that form follows function, but with a container the form is fixed and that can be a bit of a

challenge,” he said. “Some spaces don’t want to be seven feet clear on the inside, or 15 feet clear on the

inside.”

Cost is another consideration. While the shipping container has been suggested as a panacea for the

affordable housing crisis, Egan — whose firm has built nearly a dozen container units since 2003 — cautions

that the end cost may not be a low as people might expect.

“That’s a common misperception,” Egan said. “They’re cheap until you cut into them. The cost of containers

can be triple to quadruple the cost of what they are just sitting on the dock.”

Still, he says, “they make sense for the right applications, particularly those in harsher environments, which

Canada has plenty of.”

Despite its growing popularity on the west coast, cargotecture is relatively unheard of in the Ontario market.

Dwight Doerksen, owner of Toronto-based Ecopods, hopes to change that, particularly for the cottage country

niche market.

Doerksen’s firm started building 160-square-foot prototype units two years ago, positioning them on rural

properties and inviting people to try them out. He’s since incorporated a 20-foot glass wall on one side, which

is hydraulically hinged.

“It really opens the space up and brings the outside in,” Doerksen said. 

He started his first large-scale project, a 720-square-foot recreational home near Haliburton, fabricated from

four shipping containers. The house will feature a green roof, soy-based insulation, and will be powered

entirely by solar panels.

Doerksen has had a lot of inquiries, he said, though largely from south of the border, and his single unit

Ecopod has been shown at several events around Toronto.

The project in Haliburton will cost around $100 per square foot for the pre-built structure. Doerksen expects

the cost for the final move-in dwelling — including foundation and septic system — will be under $150 per

square foot, which he hopes will put it well within the consumer market for recreational homes.