Cargotecture – The Next Frontier in Housing Construction

September 24, 2014 - In an age of rising housing prices, increasing costs of construction material and fewer lots on prime real estate, the necessity of economising in the housing business is on the up-and-up. Technological advancements have been a part of reducing some of the costs associated with housing and the construction of new buildings, however; the hard costs of construction are relatively fixed, particularly in Northern Ontario. In order to overcome this issue, builders and planners worldwide have been investigating an alternative construction material that is recycled, economical, and virtually indestructible. It is called ISBU.

ISBUs, or Intermodal Steel Building Units, are the backbone of modern shipping and industry. Commonly known as “ISO containers,” or “shipping containers,” these 10-, 20-, and 40-foot steel boxes are well suited to the task of forming construction building blocks. Many of these containers, which are used only a few times, are left at ports because the costs associated with returning them to their home country, usually in Asia, is around $900.[1] Rather than ship them, ports are often able to resell them to transport companies, other shipping agencies, or private buyers. The cost of a new ISBU is usually between $2000 and $4000 including delivery for a 320 sq. ft. space (40x8x8).[2]

One of the significant advantages of these building blocks is that they are highly modular. This is to say that they can be easily stacked and placed adjacent, and connected by welding. Much stronger than conventional steel, these building blocks – which must be reinforced from the inside prior to long-term stacking – can be safely piled five-high, as was demonstrated with the creation of the Keetwonen student housing complex in the Netherlands.[3] This massive, 1000-person complex was created out of custom-fitted ISBUs created offsite and combined at-location.

The costs per square-foot vary dramatically depending on the age and cost of the containers, the size and construction of the building and the level of renovations undertaken inside the containers. The Atira Women’s Resource Society built 12 low-income houses in Vancouver at a hard-cost of about $284 per square foot.[4] However, according to a study by Back to Basics Social Developments, the costs associated with creating a structure out of ISBU is about $40-$50 per square foot.[5] The ISBU Association estimates possible construction costs as low as $30 per square foot.[6] Evidently, there is a wide range of possible options when creating a structure, and the needs of the occupants are a heavy consideration in the costs associated with the final product. The Interprofessional Projects Program released a study that focused on creating ISBU homes in Mexico, which estimated hard-costs as low as $7720 per unit, or $24 per square foot.[7] Granted, the costs associated with construction in Mexico as compared to Northern Ontario are significant including; insulation, high cost of labour and access to ports, as possible challenges. Nevertheless, the application of this building model can be used in a variety of settings, including lofts, subdivisions, low-income housing and temporary housing for the homeless. ISBU can be adapted to virtually any low-rise application.

In Northern Ontario, the use of ISBU in the construction of low-income housing and temporary housing for the homeless could be a very apt consideration, given the possibilities that this could yield. By encouraging contractors and construction firms in Northern Ontario to explore ISBU as possible construction materials, the ability to create low-cost structures and therefore affordable housing could be significantly increased.

[1]Brodaski, Mark; Campanelli, Ralph; Zabinski, Kevin. “Shipping Container Emergency Shelters: A Major Qualifying Project Report: Submitted to the faculty of Worcester Polytechnic Institute In partial fulfillment of the requirements for The Degree of Bachelor of Science.” Worcester Polytechnic Institute (2012): 2. PDF.

[2]Miller, Andrew; Swain, Nick; Fisher, Dana. “Low-Income Housing and Services Developing Proposal.” Back to Basic Social Developments (2010): 2. PDF.

[3]Uittenbroek, Caroline; Macht, Will. “Sustainable Containers: Cost-Effective Student Housing.” Quarterly & Urban Development Journal 4th Quarter (2009): 56. PDF.

[4]Abbott, Janice. “Press Release: Atira Unveils Canada’s First Recycled Shipping Container Social Housing Development.” Atira Women’s Resource Society (2013): 3. PDF.

[5]Miller, Andrew; Swain, Nick; Fisher, Dana. “Low-Income Housing and Services Developing Proposal.” Back to Basic Social Developments (2010): 2. PDF.

[6]Silva, Javier Baella. “Intermodal steel building units as an alternative for building low-income housing units in Puerto Rico.” Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras (2013): 23. PDF.

[7]IPRO. “IPRO 339 Final Report: Designing Affordable Housing out of Shipping Containers for Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.” Interprofessional Projects Program (2020): 18. PDF.

Authored by Alex Berryman, former Northern Policy Institute intern in Sudbury

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