January 26, 2012
FEATURE | Steel
Steel shipping containers used in Burk’s Falls, Ontario housing project
Toronto developer InvestorCentric Inc. is using steel shipping containers as the basis for two buildings that will form part of a three-phase rental housing complex in Burk’s Falls, about 90 kilometres south of North Bay.
“As a development company, we raise financing for any interesting projects, then act as general contractor to actually build them,” says Teresa Oliver, president of InvestorCentric. “In this case, we wanted to prove that the containers could be used in Canada to quickly build smart-value housing that often exceeds the strength requirements of building codes. The containers’ structural strength is 50 times that of wood framing, it’s fireproof and they can be built to a height of 10 storeys.”
The company had researched the use of steel shipping containers to build housing in Europe and studied the use of the containers in rapid military construction operations, where they’ve been used to build anything from airport control centres, to mobile housing and operations headquarters.
Burk’s Falls was chosen for the pilot project because the town of about 1,000 residents was experiencing a shortage of rental housing. An abandoned hotel property offered an attractive price for the development. The derelict Blue Nose Hotel was demolished in December 2010 with the assistance of Marshall Construction of Emsdale, Ont.
Construction of Phase 1 — a three-storey, 12-unit building — began in January 2011 with the excavation of the foundation. The developer had already purchased shipping containers from various locations, but the company’s first experience with the heavy-gauge steel took the project on a steep learning curve.
“The building designers didn’t take into account how difficult it was to cut through the massive structural beams of the containers to place doors and windows where they wanted them to go,” says Oliver. “The design would have suited a typical wood-frame building, not one made of heavy-gauge steel.
“It was too cold to use a plasma cutter effectively in sub-zero temperatures, so we had to use a combination of torches and grinders. The designers should have oriented the building doors to the barn doors at the front of the containers, which could have been cut off far more easily. Windows could easily be cut into the sides, provided you don’t cut through the beams.”
The design also called for welding the steel containers together. Oliver soon discovered that the containers were already fitted with a locking system designed to stabilize them during transport at sea.
“The locking system was stronger and more reliable than the welds,” she says.
Plumbing, electrical service and HVAC systems are installed though smaller access holes cut through the units. The interiors are then finished in traditional flooring and drywall. The exterior is finished with traditional eaves, roof and soffits, then coated with external sprayed insulation. Final landscaping for the first building is scheduled for spring. Bachelor apartments will then hit the market at $625 per month and two-bedroom units at $825.
The builder had committed to completing Phase 2 to the same footprint as the first. However, because the existing plan used on Phase 1 was better suited to wood, the developer opted for wood-frame construction on that building only. Construction for the building was initiated in January.
“For Phase 3, we’ll be going back to steel containers, with modification of the design so that we can work with the strength of the material, without having to cut through steel beams,” says Oliver. “The Phase 3 building, which is scheduled to be finished in the spring, will have a slightly larger footprint, with 20 per cent of the ground floor devoted to retail space. It will also feature a higher R-value stucco spray insulation.”
While the existing buildings used poured concrete foundations, Oliver believes that they could be produced even more cost-effectively by being built slab-on-grade.
“With our developed expertise in steel container construction, we believe you could easily erect a three-storey building in about 11 days,” says Oliver. “In the future, we see ourselves also manufacturing modular and pre-fab systems from steel containers, preparing the units for utilities, cutting, framing, and providing plans to be sold to other developers.”
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