Outside the box
25th July 2017
From the pages of the summer edition of Dominion Lending Centres’ Our House Magazine.
For most Canadians, a home comes in just a few different varieties. It’s either a single-family wood frame house, townhome, condo or high-rise. In the quest to find less expensive housing, alternatives to the conventional home were bound to get serious traction. From container homes to tiny homes and even the centuries-old design of a yurt, Canadians and Canadian manufacturers are starting to look at the home in an entirely different way.
Daniel Croft is the vice president of Giant Container Services, a Toronto company that’s been converting shipping containers into places to live since the beginning of the decade. The company has its roots in the trucking industry. In the early 2000s Croft’s grandfather started noticing these containers being used for storage. The company bought 100 and after a few years, a new division was born to turn the containers into homes. Since then, Croft noted business has been brisk.
“We’re seeing a huge interest in container homes,” he says, noting some of the company’s projects include condominiums built out of hundreds of containers. However, he noted at this point, most of his clients are using the containers as a vacation property home.
Giant Containers offers four to five different models ranging from 320 to 1,000 square feet at a cost $85 a square foot.
While the containers are basically just a prefabricated steel structure, Croft says they’re built like a house, and include electrical and plumbing like a traditional build.
He says his company also helps guide owners through the process of erecting the containers.
Croft sees the prefabrication of living structures, like containers, as the future of home ownership, noting they can be transported at low costs and can last longer than a conventional wood frame home.
“Our demographic knows they want to be in a container house, they like the look and feel of it and the sustainability aspect,” he says, noting his customers range in age from millennials to couples in their 40s. “This is something I’ve really been behind… I really do think this is the future of building.”
Across the country in B.C., Nomad Micro Homes is also seeing a surge of interest in its product. The company offers two types of micro homes, the most popular being its 156-square foot Nomad Cube, which also comes with a 100-square foot loft. The Cube will set you back about $32,000.
The company’s founder and CEO, Ian Kent, describes the product as a “do it yourself” kit home, similar to something you’d buy in Ikea that can be put together very quickly. While they may be simple, he notes people can live in them as a primary residence. Nomad’s homes also aren’t on wheels, like some versions of tiny homes.
The company sells about 20 to 30 of their homes a year, but the company can increase scale to produce thousands of units if needed. Kent sees the tiny home as one answer to a rental supply crisis gripping B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“It’s an extremely low-impact backyard dwelling,” he said. Nobody cares about it, you’re not going to bother anybody with it, and you’re going to provide the most affordable housing in the Lower Mainland.”
Indeed, cities and governments are starting to recognize and consider these less typical ways to live.
In 2016, the City of Vancouver put out a request for proposals to build 300 containers for temporary housing for the homeless. The city has also led the way in approving laneway homes.
Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, believes the shrinking size of the home is a reflection of the economy—building larger homes costs more—and a change in demography as families become smaller.
He suggested buyers want bigger homes to start with, but when millennials especially enter the market, they’re just not able to afford the size of dwelling their parents owned.
In the past, Friedman notes, many people’s first home was a single family house, but today most people begin their adult life in an apartment.
“We are now living in a time where there are so many critical changes,” he says.
While the professor agrees these alternative homes can help alleviate the housing pressures in areas like Toronto and Vancouver, he wouldn’t want to see tiny homes in all communities. Instead, he sees these homes integrated among a range of housing options.
Friedman also called on municipalities to be innovative, allowing for flexible designs to address the housing issues.
“What municipalities can do is revisit archaic bylaws that have been introduced in the 1940s and ’50s and see how they can be readjusted to current economic and social reality,” he said.
But if the container or tiny home isn’t your thing, there’s a centuries-old way of living to put you more in touch with nature. The yurt design is essentially that of a circular tent. Patrick Ladisa, the president of Yurta, a yurt manufacturer in Toronto, says he’s always been interested in minimalist architecture and, in 2004, his company built its first yurt, meant to be used as relief shelter.
“It really was a cost-effective living shelter. That was our core market for years,” he explains.
The company makes three sizes of yurts, the most popular being 17 feet in diameter with a price range between $7,500 to $20,000, depending on options. Some of those options include windows and a solid door. What you won’t likely see is much indoor plumbing. Ladisa noted the attraction to the yurt compared to the container or tiny home is a desire to be close to nature and a connection to the outdoors.
However the business has evolved into the recreational market for people using the structures as a guest space at a cottage, or in place of a cabin in the woods. The small company with six employees expects to sell out of its yurts for the year by the summer. Customers come from across the country.
“The cost of housing is increasing and finding a way to live inexpensively or have a livable shelter that’s cost-effective… but still has dignified living, that’s a key part for us,” Ladisa says.