Social housing made from shipping containers a model for future projects

Completion of homes a first for Vancouver

A successful experiment to build social housing in the Downtown Eastside out of recycled shipping containers has prompted the non-profit organization behind the project to begin work on another much larger development.

With the 12-unit complex now complete at 502 Alexander St., Atira Womens Resource Society wants to build a seven-storey building at Hawks and East Hastings that could potentially include 42 units.

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"Our assumptions are that the next one will be a bit easier," said Janice Abbott, Atiras CEO, as she stood outside the Alexander Street project Thursday morning.

A bit easier in the sense that the Alexander Street development is the first multi-home recycled shipping container housing project in Canada.

Getting it built meant acquiring the containers, creating a workable design, meeting building codes, working on a tight 25-foot wide site and raising the money to fund the development.

As project manager James Weldon of JTW Consulting explained, nothing about the development conformed to standard construction, including cutting out doorways.

"It was a little bit of an art getting everything to finish and fit," Weldon said. "This is breaking new ground. Its like inventing the wheel and this is the wheel of container housing. So the next one should be a heck of a lot less challenging."

The proposal for Hawks Street is in the development stage and still needs to be rezoned. But Vision Coun. Kerry Jang, who visited the Alexander Street complex Thursday, said he supports more housing of this type.

"You look at them now and you see a home," said Jang, recalling a rainy November day when a large crane put the containers in place. "We said very clearly at council that they had to be livable. And after walking in [one of them], its livable. Its got character, its got a nice homey feel."

From the street, the Alexander Street complex does not appear to be built from shipping containers. A closer look reveals the 12 units are split evenly into two separate housing pods.

One of the pods is at the front of the 120-foot long lot and the other is at the back and separated by a courtyard garden. Both pods are three containers in height but there is no elevator.

The box-shaped units are an average of 290 square feet and come with a small kitchen, full bathroom, a living room that doubles as a bedroom and an eating area.

All the units have in-suite laundry.

Each unit cost $82,500 to build, which is considerably less than apartments at a newer Atira development at 525 Abbott, where each 320-square-foot unit cost $220,000.

"Its not quite [comparing] apples to apples," said Abbott but acknowledged the cost savings.

Six of the units will go to renters who will pay 30 per cent of their gross annual income to a maximum of market rent. The other six will be home to older women who have been homeless or at risk of homelessness and rent for $375 a month.

"The real kind of joy in this is when we move in the women and they actually get to see where theyll be living," said Abbott, who anticipates all tenants to be moved in by early September.

The complex is located on the same property where Atira bought and renovated a building now called Imouto to house young women at risk of family violence.

Some of the new residents of the shipping container housing will be chosen to serve as mentors to the young women at Imouto as part of an Atira program.

Both buildings, including land and construction cost, totalled $3.3 million. Contributors included Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Streetohome Foundation, the City of Vancouver, B.C. Hydro, Central City Foundation, the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the Golf for Good Charitable golf tournament, Ken Shannon and David Cottrell.

In-kind contributors were Eagle Crane Services, Tri-R Transport Ltd. and Frank Lo of MC Quarters Corporation, which prepared the containers for construction. Lo also donated one of the containers.

mhowell@vancourier.com

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