the news group – feature

Thinking inside the box
Eco-friendly builder can hardly contain himself

Every year, 10 per cent of the world’s 65 million steel shipping containers are taken out of circulation and earmarked for recycling. Come October, Keith Dewey will live in eight of them.

Dewey, an environmental designer with a background in architecture, is putting the finishing touches on a three-storey home in Fernwood made of used shipping containers. In addition to serving as comfortable new home for Dewey and his family, the dwelling showcases the shipping container as a durable, affordable and environmentally-friendly housing alternative.

“We’re seeing some really creative solutions in the world and I’m just hoping to be one of them,” Dewey said. “It takes a lot of energy to recycle steel shipping containers. Or you could take those six million decommissioned shipping containers and build a million houses.”

Stacked atop a cement foundation on a tiny L-shaped lot near Fernwood’s village centre, the eight used shipping containers form the exterior walls of the building and its entire supporting structure, complete with steel floor joists designed to support up to 53,000 lbs. of cargo.

“Fully loaded, these can be stacked nine high in the shipyards, so they’re plenty strong enough,” said Dewey. “The structure is true, it’s predictable and they sit on the foundation the way they need to.”

Once the modules were in place – each one 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight and a half feet high – workers removed the sheet metal from between the containers to “create a nice open floor plan.”

Builders also cut rectangular holes in the metal walls to accommodate windows and sliding deck doors. Inside, all the framing, plumbing and electrical work has been completed.

Soon the thin stud walls will be drywalled to look like the interior of any other house.

“I’m really trying to make it feel like a custom-designed home,” Dewey said.

With about 650 square feet per floor, the house provides a comfortable 2,000 square feet of living space. At $2,500 each, the containers represent less than 10 per cent of the project’s estimated $300,000-budget. At $150 per square foot, Dewey’s building costs are as much as $100 per square foot lower than the going rate for projects of similar quality. The next one will be cheaper than the “prototype,” he said.

“There’s a lot of engineering costs I won’t have to replicate for the next project.”

Once the prototype is finished, Dewey hopes to make a career building homes from shipping containers. His one-man urban design company, Zigloo, is dedicated to “providing non-traditional methods of providing comfortable shelter.”

With alternative housing advocates around the world taking notice of the shipping container’s potential as a low-cost building block, Dewey’s timing couldn’t be better. A couple of years ago, a magazine article about a container cottage in Australia got Dewey thinking about how far the concept could be taken.

He was also inspired by Container City, a live-work space for artists that opened in London in 2002. Built primarily from 45 shipping containers, the 34-unit project is the largest of its kind in the world.

There are dozens of other examples of container architecture – a hostel in South Africa, a planned student village in Amsterdam and various types of temporary shelters made partly or entirely from the giant Lego-like modules. A California company called Energistx sells single-unit, container homes that Dewey says are being used “in the Arctic for research facilities and dormitories.”

Shipping containers also see action as emergency shelters during major disasters; in Africa and Jamaica and most recently, after hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans last fall.

Dewey claims his new house, dubbed Zigloo Domestique, is the first multi-container, custom-designed home in North America, although a similar rendition is being built in Redondo Beach, Calif.

“From the major projects I’ve seen, most of them looked pretty utilitarian,” Dewey said. “I’m trying to show it can be more than that.”

Initially, Dewey said a container home was something he planned to do “down the road.” But last spring, with his young family needing more space, he found a $140,000 lot in Fernwood that fit the bill. Since the land was zoned to accommodate a duplex, all Dewey needed was a building permit and a minor variance on the rear-yard setback.

Victoria planner Stan Schopp said the project is so unique, the city told Dewey to hire an outside consultant to do the inspection. Dewey must also have a qualified mechanical engineer, structural engineer and an architect sign off on the work.

“He’s probably not going to meet the letter of the inspection requirements. Sometimes it’s a matter of how you meet the code,” Schopp said.

For example, Schopp said the BC Building Code specifies the use of 2″ x 10″ floor joists. While the steel I-beams below the floor of each container are more than strong enough, they’re not an option listed in the building code. Schopp said the city has no major issues with the way the house looks.

“If he pulls it off the way things show on the plan, it’s not going to look that bad.”

There’s some residual damage on the home’s exterior walls, inflicted by forklifts and cranes over the years, but Dewey said it’s nothing a little sand-blasting and a couple of coats of high-end marine paint can’t fix. As for the dents, well, that’s just part of the charm.

Shipping containers, Dewey has found, have a number of useful features that come in handy for builders.

“We didn’t have anywhere to run the wiring so we used the forklift pockets as mechanical chases,” he said.

Zigloo Domestique will be outfitted with an arrangement of eco-friendly features: low-voltage lighting, energy-efficient appliances and in-floor hot water heating.

“It’s not a boiler. It’s hot water on demand,” he said. “With three storeys you can heat the basement and the main floor and the residual heat warms the upper floor.”

In recent months, Dewey’s web site, has attracted interest from Seattle, Vancouver, Whistler and even Texas.

© Copyright 2006 Victoria News

Article by: Brennan Clarke
Victoria News
Sep 01 2006

One Response to “the news group – feature”

  • Hey dewy,

    Congratulations on your breakthrough, this is an advanced, green & sustainable architecture, as an architecture student, I truly admire your work. Am so impressed with your work that I might come n see your work in person.

    Keep up the great work Amigo.

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