Shipping in the future
Architectural evolution, often in the context of sustainable development, has slowly grown into our common lexicon. Tiny houses, off-grid and net-zero buildings, renewable and recycled materials are all a part of this mammoth trend changing the way we put roofs over our heads.
These fringe developments still represent a minority in the construction world, showcased often as the work of experimental designers and wealthy industry leaders, but lately they’ve been finding a footing on the residential streets of cities all over the world. Homes with a vastly reduced carbon footprint can be commissioned these days by anyone with a deep enough purse, but a new development here in Edmonton is ushering in sustainable living for the average citizen.
The multi-family development uses modular construction, but unlike the traditional stick-build structures we’ve seen for years, this low-rise apartment is made of shipping containers—a first in our city.
Step Ahead Properties was started more than a decade ago by AJ Slivinski and his wife Mary Jo who began investing in and managing average walk-up apartment buildings in Edmonton. Six years ago, they bought Westgate Manor, two 20-unit low-rise buildings along 149 Street with a large enough footprint to eventually add a third. The concept of repurposing shipping containers, a.k.a. sea cans, had always interested AJ, but he began researching the possibility and potential construction partners in earnest about three years ago.
“At that time, before the oil crash, all they wanted to do was make buildings for the oil patch,” AJ says of local sea can builders. “I couldn’t find anybody who really wanted to explore this niche of the market. And one day, Ladacor called, they’d seen my profile on LinkedIn and said, ‘Hey, we’re really interested. We see you have some interest in these shipping containers, we’d like to work together and develop them into a multi-family space.’”
Ladacor was founded in Calgary five years ago with the express purpose of exploring modular construction using sea cans. The owner was already working in the pre-engineered steel construction industry, so it was a natural shift. Rhys Kane, Ladacor’s director of business development, says the first two years were strictly dedicated to research and development, and then it was time to set up the factory where all the sea cans are repurposed, eventually heading out on flat-bed trucks 90 percent finished and ready to be assembled, just like Lego.
“It’s like the way they build cars. They build cars in factories, they don’t turn up on your driveway and assemble your car in the driveway, it arrives predone,” he says. “That’s the future of construction.”
The benefits of using sea cans for construction purposes are many and varied. First and foremost is the benefit to us all in the way of environmental responsibility. Our consumer-driven existence fuels a fierce demand for products from Asia, but only 25 percent of the shipping containers bringing goods this way are sent back full. It is more cost efficient to build a new shipping container in China than ship back the empty container, so the other 75 percent are quickly stacking up along the west coast.
“It’s like people going to the grocery store and using those plastic bags and then discarding them at the end, it’s the same principle as a shipping container,” says Kane, adding the sea cans they use—all engineered for a structural integrity far above building codes—must have been used at least once and they don’t ever use new containers. “If they’ve been used a few times and we can identify them as being good quality, then that’s what we’ll use. And we have a strict, rigorous inspection before we repurpose it into a building block because obviously the building industry is very highly regulated and you have to use a really high-quality sea container, but there is very many of them around and this is just putting a small dent into it, but it is recycled.”
Aside from reusing discarded material, the efficiency of pre-building in a factory eliminates construction waste. With traditional wooden construction, 30 percent waste is routinely accounted for in the overall cost of a project.
As for the builders, having trades people work indoors at the same site where challenging elements and travel to remote sites isn’t necessary keep costs down. This controlled environment also offers greater consistency for the product and less waste producing it. Developers and business owners cash in on the fact construction and turnover time is slashed at least in half so interest on loans is far less and spaces are occupied more quickly. Sea cans also equate to lower insurance premiums because they are non-combustible structures, something residents can appreciate. While it doesn’t mean the building won’t burn, you’ll have a heck of a lot more time to get out because of the steel construction, which also provides superior insulation against temperatures and sound.
Ladacor has completed two hotels for major chains and are looking into other markets such as senior complexes, student and First Nations housing, but Westgate Manor is the company’s first apartment building.
“The construction itself didn’t take a long time. It took us over 18 months to get to the permits,” AJ explains during a tour of the new building. “The fact that it’s shipping containers had no bearing on the delay, it was trying to build an infill to new code … putting 88 parking stalls on a footprint this size or upgrading sewer and these types of things.”
The ground at Westgate Manor broke right around the new year, and while traditional construction would take 12 to 18 months, AJ and Mary Jo are aiming to have renters in by Sept. 1.
“The building itself started May 18 and was completely erected by June 18,” AJ says of the actually sea can blocks constructed atop the 58 pilings and beams laid down as a foundation. “It’s all planned. They come up in the morning from Calgary and they’re all lined up out here at about seven in the morning and then they just drive in. There’s a huge construction crane here and he just picks it off the truck and places it, picks it off the next truck, places it and they’re done by 10 or 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock in the afternoon.”
After that, the modules—prefit with all the plumbing and systems ready for connection, and suites already laid with cabinets and flooring—only need to be connected. As for the stairwells, they simply take that sea can block and pop it up vertically. Easy peasy.
Westgate Manor, 16315 96A Ave., is hosting an open house on June 29 from 12 to 3 pm for those curious about this forward-thinking development.