In a backyard in the southwest community of Killarney, three shipping containers are being positioned above a two-car garage to create 480 square feet of living space for Chad Saunders and his wife, Jennifer Head. The finished residence will be the first laneway shipping-container home in Calgary.
Jeremy Johnson, founder of the Calgary-based builder responsible, Modern Huts, believes it will be the first of many.
"Since the containers were put in position a couple of weeks ago, we've had a lot of inquiries on costs and timescales," Mr. Johnson says. "Killarney is a community which is pretty open to density and innovation and people are interested and excited to see something like this come to Calgary."
"Most container companies are building laneway homes fully modular and then moving the completed units into position, which is a very efficient and economical way to build, but we're having to site-build for this project because of the city's inspection process. They want to see all the processes as the build unfolds," he says.
This has meant Mr. Johnson and his team will be on site for approximately three months, rather than the five days which would be required were they permitted to complete the build off-site.
Since starting the project, Mr. Johnson says this particular inspection process has been revised and the city will allow container homes to be built fully prefabricated in future.
"Until now, you could use modular building techniques but the city was sticky on anything that was fully prefabbed and delivered, even with modular homes," he says. "Laneway – and specifically container homes – are still very new to Calgary so the city has been pretty cautious, but we're seeing that change now, which is good news."
Despite the challenges, Mr. Johnson says the build, which is his company's third container home, is going well. He expects the entire one-bedroom suite, including the two-car garage underneath, to come in around $130,000.
"The cost to build will be similar to a stick-frame build but it will be quicker, even without building off-site, more durable and will result in a far more energy efficient building. The R-values we're reaching are really high and we're hopeful of achieving Passive [House] standards someday," he says. (Passive House is a standard for ultralow energy efficiency.)
"The exterior of the suite is being left largely as metal, so will require virtually no maintenance, and we're also generating a lot less garbage," Mr. Johnson says. "We have eight bags of garbage on site right now and drywall starts this week. With a stick build, at the same stage, we'd have a full bin of waste leaving the site already."
Upon completion in March, Mr. Saunders and Ms. Head will move into the container suite with their eight-year-old son while Mr. Johnson renovates their 1950 bungalow. Mr. Saunders has owned the property on the corner of 32nd St. and 26th Ave. S.W. for 19 years. He bought it as a starter home but, as the years passed, he and his wife started talking about paying off the mortgage and renovating, rather than moving.
"When we started to approach builders about doing a renovation, most of them said we'd be better to knock the house down and built from scratch, but we really weren't interested in building a monster house," he says. "When Jeremy suggested we include the old garage in the reno, that's when we started to think about putting in a suite. We've always liked the idea of shipping-container homes – what they stand for from an environmental perspective and also how they look."
The couple have no firm long-term plans for their garage-top property yet but Mr. Saunders, who works in the arts, says they could end up letting it out to an artist in residence.
"If we find the perfect renter, then great, but we're also considering options with organizations like Alberta Ballet which need temporary accommodation for artists from time to time. We think that could be a really fun and interesting way to use the space," he says. "We actually hope to engage a local artist to create a mural on the side of the container which faces into the yard when it's finished, too."
Mr. Saunders also sees long-term value in having a second residence on the family property.
"We know from relatives how expensive care facilities can be and how challenging that is for seniors. We figure that maybe in 30 years, if our family needs a caregiver, someone could move into that house. It doesn't hurt to think ahead and have options," he says. "We'd rather diversify the land we have now than build a huge house that we'll struggle to take care of in the future."
Mr. Johnson says caregiving is one of the main motivators for clients inquiring with his company about laneway homes.
"When we finish this project, we move onto another shipping container laneway home in Silver Springs. It'll be a four-container suite providing 640 square feet of living space and two bedrooms for a daughter and her son who are moving back onto the family property to provide care to her parents," he says. "Silver Springs is a neighbourhood where you find a lot of retirees and we've had other inquiries for the same kind of project from that community."
Other projects planned for summer include a laneway office for a client in Mount Royal and a solar-powered, hydroponic greenhouse for a client in Briar Hill who's interested in year-round growing. Both would be fashioned from a single shipping container.
Mr. Johnson says in time he's like to start to prefabricate shipping container suites and have them shipped across Canada. But, for now, he's focusing on the local market in Calgary where laneway homes are becoming more common and, he says, there's "virtually no competition for small-scale, backyard shipping-container projects."