They were once rusting hulks relegated to junkyards. Now shipping containers are being repurposed into stylish homes that developers plan to roll out in housing-crunched communities across Canada.
A three-storey development in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood uses just 12 of the millions of containers decommissioned after a life on the sea of five to 10 years.
What started as a pilot project on the Downtown Eastside is expanding in the city – and the same model is set to be stacked up in aboriginal communities in British Columbia, Alberta and Nunavut.
Marnie Crassweller lives in a "studio" container. A 285-square-foot suite home with an ocean view, washer-dryer, kitchen and private bathroom.
"I find it to be a beautiful suite," she said, gesturing to her home.
She said she often has to dispel misconceptions of people who ask questions such as: "Isn't it cold? Isn't it like a dungeon?"
"And as you can see, it's not."
Janice Abbott, the CEO of social housing agency Atira Property Management Inc., described the container construction as "building with Lego blocks," saying it's a fast, environmentally friendly and – presumably – cheaper way to build homes.
"You have to think of them as exoskeletons or substructures," Ms. Abbott said.
Each container is fitted for plumbing and wiring and is insulated and drywalled.
Ms. Abbott said the containers are built with high-grade steel that is much stronger than wood, and more than one can be fused together to create multibedroom suites. From the front, the narrow three-storey container development is a modern complex with large windows, but from the side, you can see the ridged steel of what was once a shipping container.
The project, completed in 2013, was Canada's first development of recycled shipping containers and the spaces are in such demand that a second complex is being planned a few blocks away.
The concept is quintessential Vancouver, where the heated real estate market has forced creative housing solutions in small spaces.
But Ms. Abbott said the idea is catching on across Canada in communities where suitable housing is direly needed.
Her agency is looking at building container developments on six or seven reserves across the country, with help from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
Ms. Abbott said the next development will likely be on First Nations land near Tofino, on Vancouver Island, and she is working on choosing the next site in Alberta, from a number of interested First Nations.
She is also in discussions with leaders of an Inuit settlement in Baker Lake, Nunavut, which gets almost all of its supplies shipped with containers that are never returned, because it's cheaper to build new in China than return them. "The goal is to try and demonstrate that this kind of building technology works in all these different climate zones."
Ms. Abbott said Atira is looking at reserves, because there are ongoing issues of housing shortages on many of them.
Gordon Price, a civic issues expert and ex-Vancouver councillor who now directs the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said he's skeptical of the benefits.
He said he can't see the savings being significant enough to make it worthwhile, because there are many other key expenses, particularly land costs. "It's certainly not a revolutionary solution," he said.
For Ms. Crassweller, a recovering alcoholic who was homeless for fives years, the suite is a "sanctuary."
"I was pretty destructive for too many years," she said. "Now I'm here, just trying to step up to the plate, trying to move towards working and being self-supportive."