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The shipping containers once carried goods across the ocean from Asia.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Shipping containers that likely would have been left to rust in Vancouver will instead be used to construct a housing project that's the first of its kind in Canada.

Twelve containers will be converted into social and affordable housing for women in the city's Downtown Eastside, where construction got underway Friday.

The project that's slated to be completed by next April was developed by the Atira Women's Resource society, which bought a lot in 2009 to build traditional housing.

Atira CEO Janice Abbott said plans changed the following year when the society submitted a winning proposal to BC Hydro, which was giving away two shipping containers to a non-profit group.

Two more shipping containers were donated, and Atira bought another eight from the Port of Vancouver to build the project that's modelled on similar ones in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

Ms. Abbott said six of the 12 units will be occupied by women who are over 55 years old and currently living in a shelter or a single-room occupancy hotel.

"What we hope is to set up an intergenerational program," Ms. Abbott said. "We have housing for young women next door and we'd like to set up mentoring relationships between them."

The older women will pay $375 a month in rent while younger women in the remaining units will be charged about 30 per cent of market rent to help with the $500,000 mortgage for the building, Ms. Abbott said

The 320-square-foot containers would be stacked three high and each would have a private bathroom, kitchen and in-suite laundry. Floor-to-ceiling windows would be at each end and each floor would be linked by an external staircase.

The shipping containers once carried goods across the ocean from Asia and have been modified at a Richmond, B.C., shipyard.

Atira is planning a week-long open house for the public before the units, costing $100,000 each, are expected to be occupied on April 1.

"While getting them here and getting them stacked is extremely satisfying and exciting, what I'm really looking forward to is handing over the keys to the women who will live there," Ms. Abbott said from the site where the containers were being unloaded Friday.

Victoria designer Keith Dewey bought 12 shipping containers to construct his 2,000-square-foot home seven years ago.

"It's being done around the world and I found the opportunity to take my spin on it and be early in the door," he said.

The three-storey home with a curved roof cost $180 a square foot, compared to the $250 price for traditional homes at the time, Mr. Dewey said.

He is now working on homes in various cities around the world including Nice, France, San Diego, Chicago and north of Christchurch, New Zealand, where he's consulting on an earthquake-proof housing solution.

Mr. Dewey is also slated to design a unique condo complex in Devon, Alta., where more than 2,000 containers will be used.

Container homes have a lifespan of about 12 years, he said, but they can be repaired and used for sustainable housing.

"The next step for these containers would have been for them to be loaded onto cargo ships and sent back to Asia where they would have been cut up and melted down and recylced into something else," he said.

Despite the growing popularity of container homes elsewhere, North Americans tend to think they don't offer quality living quarters, Mr. Dewey said.

"In North America people's dream homes still have to do with a white picket fence and gabled roofs and that type of thing. And although that idea is evolving and you're seeing a lot of recycled and upcycled materials being used in people's houses, this is a large leap forward."