VANCOUVER -- The only telling signs that a new Downtown Eastside housing project at 502 Alexander Street is unusual are the corrugated steel walls, painted navy blue and burnt orange.
The colourful walls are the exterior of 12 recycled shipping containers that form the base structure for the unique three-level, 12-unit development for women.
“Once you put the containers on site and secure them, the construction is really similar to other forms of housing,” Atira Women’s Resource Society chief executive Janice Abbott said in an interview on Thursday.
“We spray-foam insulated everything and put up drywall, and as you can see, it’s not significantly different than any other apartment you might see anywhere else in Vancouver.”
Canada’s first recycled shipping container social housing development features a dozen self-contained units ranging from 280 to 290 square feet in size. The first occupants are expected to move in next month.
The development meets all building codes, and indeed exceeds code requirements for insulation and sound transference.
Abbott noted the hard construction costs were $82,500 per unit, compared with about $220,000 a unit for a conventional concrete housing project Atira recently completed on Abbott Street, which features 320-square-foot homes.
The entire Alexander Street project — including a heritage restoration of the adjacent 16-unit Imouto Housing for Young Women — cost $3.3 million, with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. contributing $2.6 million.
The City of Vancouver kicked in $92,000. Coun. Kerry Jang noted that the city normally would have contributed $120,000, or $10,000 per unit.
“But because their costs were so much lower than normal, they didn’t need it,” he said.
City council first investigated the concept of shipping container housing about four years ago, as similar projects had been built in Europe but none had ever been developed in Canada.
Jang said one of the biggest challenges was overcoming the notion that the project would “stack up poor people and warehouse them” in containers.
“For us, the number-one thing is that it had to be livable. When you look around, you can see they have really achieved that,” he said.
Four of the 12 recycled containers were donated — two from BC Hydro and two from private citizens — while eight were bought through a broker from Port Metro Vancouver.
Project development manager James Weldon said the containers, worth from $4,000 to $5,000 each, contain steel that would normally be too expensive for this sort of development.
“It’s kind of ironic that when it’s recycled like this, it becomes very affordable,” he said.
Weldon said the innovative project came with a “phenomenal” learning curve for everyone involved.
“It seems very simple and straightforward now, but at the time, it was challenging for everybody because the industry isn’t used to working with this kind of material,” he said. “The next project like this will be more efficient and economical because we learned so much from this pilot project.”
Abbott said preliminary work has already started on Atira’s plan to develop “a more sophisticated” shipping container housing development on a site at Hastings Street and Hawks Avenue. The society hopes to gain city approval to build a seven-storey project that would require 42 recycled containers.
The Alexander Street development features two different levels of non-market housing — six units that will cost occupants $375 a month, and six whose rents will be determined by the resident’s annual income. Renters of the income-related units can earn a maximum of $34,000 a year and pay a maximum monthly rental of $850.
Abbot said applications from potential residents will be reviewed next week, and the society wants women over the age of 50 to occupy the $375-a-month units.
“We want those women to participate in an inter-generational mentorship program with the young women who live next door (at the Imouto development),” she said. “We’re looking for women with roots in this community who want to give back and support young women to perhaps take different paths than they did.”