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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.