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Introducing Canada's First Shipping Container Housing Project

Photo: Atira website

Shipping containers were once primarily considered large metal boxes to be transported on ships containing the consumer goods we buy from China. In today's inflated real estate market, this is no longer the case. Last year, they became a home - the first of its kind in Canada - to women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (once known as the country's poorest postal code).

The idea to use shipping containers as homes for marginalized women was developed by the Atira Women's Resource Society, an organization that supports women and children who are victims of violence. 

Oneesan, on Alexander Street in Vancouver, is Atira's first recycled shipping container housing development. It opened in July 2013 after only eight months of construction and contains 12 recycled shipping containers - six housing units for older women and six units for women paying low-income rental rates. 

Resident of Oneesan (Photo: Vancouver Courier)

Each 284 square foot unit has a compact kitchen, a full bathroom, living space and even a washer/dryer. Rather than being cold and cramped, the units have high ceilings and are actually modern, clean and inviting. A post-occupancy survey on the liveability and functionality of the homes found that overall tenant satisfaction is 92%. According to Atira:

"The concept of utilizing used shipping containers for housing typically conjures up appalling images of transporting marginalized people from one hell hole to another and obstinate opinions about housing the poor in warehouse-type facilities. Take a trip to visit this project nine months after occupancy however and you will meet a group of highly satisfied women beaming from ear to ear and extremely pleased and proud to live in their hip, environmentally friendly and award-winning homes located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside."

Atira's shipping container housing project was also very convenient and symbolic of the neighbourhood, as the containers were actually purchased from Port Metro Vancouver, the city's port that is just across the street from the Oneesan building.

In addition to being affordable, shipping containers are the ultimate in sustainable, environmentally-friendly housing. They use far fewer materials, less construction waste and less energy over many conventional forms of construction. Their inherent form, durable steel construction, weathering properties and shell-like characteristics make instant walls, floors and roofs. 

A shipping container parklet that I discovered in Montreal

This explains why shipping containers are already being repurposed in cities around the world as various forms of shelter. Containers have now been used to create housing in the Docklands area of London, medical clinics in Haiti, market stalls in the Ukraine, and public space projects in Montreal.

In Atira's case, the award-winning Oneesan project was so successful, that Atira is considering building a 26 social-housing unit development that will use about 90 shipping containers stacked seven high on a lot at Hastings and Hawks on the edge of the Downtown Eastside.

Janice Abbott, Atira's CEO, said in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, that for her, shipping container housing is not about being trendy but about "trying to find a way to provide desperately needed homes at a lower price than the norm".

"This is about building more housing for women and children."

You can watch the video below to take a tour inside the Oneesan project: