Put together an offbeat do-it-yourselfer and a rogue architect, and the result is the Lego-esque creation rising like a cubist phoenix on an empty lot at 5 Arkledun Ave. in Hamilton.

The city’s first container home sits at the base of the escarpment, a block east of St. Joseph’s Hospital, showcasing inside-and-outside-the-box thinking: Eight 40-foot-long steel shipping containers painted fire-engine red, split between two storeys, each container 320 square feet (2,560 square feet in total).

Once the interior is complete, it will have six rooms plus a conventional 1,280-square-foot basement. It was recently put together in just eight hours on site, but it was built two years ago in Toronto by a container modification company called Storstac.

Assembly on Arkledun took place once the owner, Geoffrey Young, had navigated permits and approvals through the city.

The idea to live in a container home was a natural progression for the 40-year-old Young, an eclectic thinker who has long pursued the road less travelled.

He grew up in Belleville, Ont., dropped out of Ryerson journalism school in the 1990s and took development studies at the University of Winnipeg.

He said he fell in with a Toronto arts group (“basically nerds, but not the pocket-protector types”) that produced internet programming, even landing David Bowie as a guest.

He freelanced in radio journalism, did development aid work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, lived in Nicaragua and Peru and most recently Bolivia, where he taught English, did consulting work, married a native Bolivian and had a daughter with her.

Over the years Young developed an interest in architecture that combines technology and ecological sustainability, and he lists urban planning guru Jane Jacobs as an influence.

Homes made from shipping containers go back at least 20 years, influenced by architects such as California’s Wes Jones, seen on a grand scale in the “container city” development in London in 2001, and now perhaps dovetailing with the tiny home movement and minimalist living philosophy.

Young says “they suggest a technology of service, where your built environment can be sustainably adapted to serve you, not vice versa.”

A couple of years ago, he spotted one in Brighton, close to where he grew up, and discovered its designer, Toronto’s Jason Halter.

Halter has designed container buildings for a decade, including homes in Los Angeles and Manhattan’s West Village. His most recent is a four-container bed and breakfast structure in Prince Edward Island.

Halter says he is fascinated with them mostly for their “robust quality” and effectiveness as shelters in hurricane zones or as relief housing, and is designing them for use as homes and dental and eye-care clinics in several Caribbean countries.

“That’s what drives my passion with these, more than style. There are bigger issues.”

Halter, who has lectured at the University of Waterloo’s architecture school, calls himself a designer, industrial designer and an architect, but stresses he is not a licensed architect.

His firm, Wonder Inc., does employ an architect and a couple of engineers: “We are small and lean … we don’t want to grow.”

The quote on his website, from Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, captures what he says is his enthusiasm for paradox: “People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that’s both liberating and alarming.”

Halter approvingly quotes a design critic who called his shipping container building style “lunch-bucket modern.”

“That’s awesome. And kind of what it is.”

He worked with Young on the design and permit requirements for the Arkledun Ave. home. Young chose Hamilton because a vacant lot was available near downtown, and he likes the city’s warm cultural vibe.

(Heading west, Arkledun turns into St. Joseph’s Dr., and north into John St., and east into the Jolley Cut up the Mountain.)

Young says he hopes the project will inspire others to reflect upon opportunities to “insert homes into the pre-existing landscape” rather than develop new swaths of land.

With the engineering required to make them comfortable homes, container houses are not cheaper to build than conventional ones. Young estimates the total cost will be $500,000 or more, with each container costing $8,000 to $10,000 and about double that after work is done to them.

The home will be energy-efficient, says Anthony Ruggiero, the quality control manager at the home’s manufacturer, Storstac. “It’s a fully welded steel box, so when it is insulated, there will be no draft, no leaks.”

Young laments that his costs increased due to delays with the city prior to installation, such as removing fill from the site and issues with old pipelines.

Jorge Caetano, a manager in the city’s building division, says the process was a “good learning experience,” because while shipping containers have been repurposed for a variety of small structures in Hamilton (all of which require permits), this is the first time they’ve been used for a single-family dwelling.

Inspections will be done regularly until the work is complete, Caetano says, adding no new applications have been submitted for container homes.

Young will frequently be in town finishing drywalling and flooring, plus seven small balconies, with the help of contractors. He hopes to move in by September, but more realistically later in the fall.

He says the “one-trip or lightly-used” containers were manufactured in China, and he plans to trace the serial number on each one to learn what materials were shipped inside.

“I like the idea of taking something that is past its peak-prime and giving it a different sort of higher purpose.”

Young says he eventually wants to take in a couple of international students as boarders who would benefit from staying with his family.

For now, he is living with his wife, Wendy, and daughter Ilia, in Belleville. Wendy is taking English courses and adjusting to life in Canada, and will soon need to also adjust to the house — she hasn’t seen it yet — and the public attention paid to it.

“It’s a lot to ask of her, it’s weird for her (relocating from Bolivia) and then weird again, you know? It’s a big shiny house,” Young says.

One of their new neighbours, Paddy Chitty, says she’ll reserve her opinion on the house until it’s finished, but thinks the design is interesting.

“On the whole, it looks better than I expected, and it’s certainly better than the empty lot that was there for so long,” she says, adding residents are more concerned about a big apartment complex slated to be built nearby that will bring increased traffic.

Young says he’d ultimately like to open his doors so neighbours can take a look, and will soon erect a suggestion box out front.

And for motorists passing through up or down the Mountain, he hopes they will notice the bright red steel cube house, smile, and reflect upon “the physical space around them and the potential those spaces hold.”

Via.

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