container yes, container no…

After reading this article about what is wrong with shipping container housing, I was torn.

I completely agree that shipping containers aren’t a magical solution to new cheap building – all the arguments about the real cost of using and adapting shipping containers are very clear and accurate. And I am always suspicious of one-size-fits all solutions in design and construction – most particularly when they come from great visionaries fixing other people’s problems. Every building meant for permanent habitation has a roof and a floor and walls, but the site, the density, the people inside, their dreams and functional needs are always specific. Architects bring much to the table in solving particular housing problems, but they aren’t much good without partners – clients, planners, funders, builders, community organisations.

As Mark Hogan so clearly states : « housing is not usually a technology problem ». I would probably take out the « usually » myself – technology can be a factor in inadequate housing and in solving housing problems, but access to housing passes though the realms of finance, politics and social infrastructure long before beams get sized.
cutting copy

But back to shipping containers. I think Hogan’s article cites several things which make containers less-than-ideal for housing. In fact, many of those things led us to use shipping containers in the Mira Bay house as the small rooms, with living and dining housed in a wood structure.

In the case of low-cost housing, the future residents often have a lot on their minds already, so experimental construction must be brought to the table with a grain of salt. Even two grains. Never mind the symbolic value of putting people away in industrial storage boxes.

In fact it is symbolic value that gives me pause in my rush to list off all the reasons not to build out of shipping containers : people are inspired by shipping container buildings. Something about the lego-like quality of these big boxes leads people to dream about building something themselves. The containers come in a size people can relate to, a set of modules they can arrange and rearrange into interesting shapes. Something about shipping containers turns all of us into architects. There aren’t so very many things in the world of design that engage the general public to think about space in a creative and engaged way. Architecture has to work, but it also has to make us dream.
And if shipping containers make people dream, perhaps they are the beginning of a bigger conversation about all the different pieces we can stack around us to build our world.

what makes a school?

IMG_4099I have been thinking a lot about schools these past few weeks. Schools my kids attend, schools in other places, a design competition for a mongolian school. What is it that makes it possible for kids to learn? A recent design competition invited architects to think about these things for a school in northwestern Mongolia, here is what they came up with: cool school.

Schools serve many purposes, but socialisation and learning are probably the top two. In middle class societies, school also serves as daytime childcare. But let’s go back to the main ones – learning how to do things, learning facts, and learning how to get along. And maybe we should add learning how to follow instructions and how to sit still – which might be training for being good future employees but it also allows for the development of focus and patience and consideration of other people.
So when designing a school, how much does the building bring to the learning? How much should the environment be familiar, and how much should it challenge children with the new? And, since I live in a place where cutbacks are more common than vision, what can the school budget bear?

The modernist architects argued for neutral public spaces, for buildings like bright blank slates to be occupied and animated by the people inside. It seems to me that this kind of neutrality is most successful where equal rights and opportunities for all are put into action on a daily basis. Schools also demand we consider the question of scale in a school building built for children and their adult teachers. All the users aren’t even the same size! Modernist buildings tend to also supply flexible space, endlessly reuseable and adaptable to the evolving needs of teachers and buildings and changeable school populations. In the current situation in my hometown, where a demographic boom is putting enormous pressure on dense urban neighbourhoods, the flexibility of the school spaces seems paramount. And difficult. Should spaces be changeable, with moveable parts? Or will this take away from important performance aspects like durability and acoustic privacy? Or will schools simply expand and contract over time, taking over space in adjacent buildings until those, like the old schools from 100 years ago, are converted into housing coops and office space? Will we live with classrooms in trailers, maybe making the experience more pleasant and educational by designing better trailers?

In North America, we rarely get our hands dirty with collective construction projects like the barn-raisings of the past. Perhaps this needs to change too – including some flexibility in the legislation that severely restricts non-residential construction by people other than professionalized construction workers. In the meantime, solutions to the issue of school space and flexibility revolves largely around budgets and politics rather than problem-solving and design.

There are a few visionary places where pedagogy and a rethinking of the place of schools in our communities has lead to innovative school projects. These include school greening initiatives (global coalition for green schools), project-based learning areas with flexible furnishings, and areas which bring the community inside the school, making it a ‘third place’ to hang out and rub up against learning (which in turn reinforces the importance of the learning itself). Most often, these focus on transforming the school into a “third place” for its students (schools learning from innovative office space ). It seems to me that if we expand the conversation about the way schools should be in our neighbourhoods, visionary and flexible buildings may just emerge. People can be brave. The question is whether governments and school boards can be too.


Image 5

I was recently asked about toxic finishes in shipping containers. I am no expert on such matters, but I read up on the subject a little and found a lot of opinions with no sources, some information about industrial paint issues, and advice on choosing new paint.

Generally speaking, I think building and renovation work has to stick to its priorities, both in terms of space use and building performance. It’s easy to fall into ‘while we’re at it..’ in any project: we all have a drive to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, to layer it all over with a fresh coast of wallpaper. But wallpaper, and laminate, and glue, and mortar, and paint all become a sticky un-recyclable mess of extra finishes with extra chemical elements and extra stops on the manufacturing chain. Now I know that this building is made from shipping containers made in China and shipped halfway across the world, the irony is not lost on me, but these containers came to Nova Scotia filled up with little plastic trinkets all on their own. We simply purchased them once their initial shipping function was completed.

In thinking about finishing the shipping containers for the house in Mira, I had been thinking about necessary finishes (insulation, gyprock over the insulation), about keeping something of the essence of the material itself (industrial steel), and about eliminating unnecessary layers in the construction (finishing on one side only). Toxicity wasn’t forefront in my mind. But the question is a very good one. So after a bit of research and reflection, here is my take on existing finishes and liveability:


Our containers are painted with marine paint from International Marine Coatings. This company phased out lead and a bunch of other nasty ingredients a few years ago. The paint we have is no all natural milk paint, but it meets the new Canadian standards for VOC emissions in metal paints. And since our containers are new, the paint is well-adhered and in excellent condition. It seems to me that grinding it all off and using more paint isn’t the most low-impact course of action. So we’re leaving the paint as is (with touch-ups as needed, and proper masks and ventilation for the cutting and welding work).


The floors are hardwood plywood – maybe mahogany. No FSC certifications that I can see. And the wood is treated with Radaleum FHP-60 – basically it’s cockroach powder impregnated in the wood. As this wood is sound and already in place, our plan is to seal it and use it as a finished floor. We will either use an epoxy or a clearcoat like Safecoat Hard Seal, after a little washing as recommended by another container house builder who has an excellent post on this subject: tin can cabin . This seems to me to be the most low-impact solution, rather than demolishing and installing brand new plywood.

Hopefully these strategies get us closer to our common goal – to make safe and comfortable space for people while minimizing the impact on the land.

Now we wait…


Anyone who has done a construction project will be familiar with this phase – the waiting. Sometimes it is a phase that reappears several times during a project. Getting started, moving on to the next phase, fixing the deficiencies, getting approvals – there are so many possible snags as a project moves from paper to painting the trim that it would be impossible (and discouraging!) to list them all here.
Unfortunately, we architects play the role of waiting interpreter, somewhere between the helpful relative in the waiting room and the receptionist behind the desk. We question, pressure, call, sometimes threaten, explain, and re-plan based on the new information. But we rarely get to decide when things will happen – not really. In our role as contract administrators, we can raise red flags and ask the right questions at the right times in hopes of sparking action. We can also translate the technical issues and timing conflicts that sometimes arise on site and cause delays. We can explain the impact of changes on the construction schedule, based on delivery times and coordination…


But in the end, we end up waiting too, along with everyone else. For a final decision on the windows, for an order to be placed, for the construction team to arrive, for the delivery to make it through the traffic, for the consultant’s report – oh, the waiting!


Fortunately, waiting by the seaside in the summer is better than some other kinds of waiting. The distractions are more pleasant. The fishing is better. Next week the containers will arrive, there will be welding, and a crane, and generators. So for now we may as well enjoy the wait.


Le local

It’s good for architects and a planner to get a little dirty, as we are currently doing in our new office space. Michel Villeneuve, architect, Samir Admo, urban planning and heritage consultant, and yours truly are putting the finishing touches on our lovely new office space. Our view includes the train tracks and some fairly spectacular graffiti in the derelict building across the street, all seen through our glorious big windows under our 11′ factory ceilings.


Why do architects and designers love these rough unfinished spaces so dearly? The tactile sense of history? The possibility of repurposing space? The creative potential of the margins? Hard to say. But the three of us fell in love with our office when it looked like an industrial ruin. And we are gradually painting, sanding, fixing and filling up this lovely volume so we can sit down to reimagine other lovely ruined spaces….



IMG_0480 IMG_1787

At first glance, it might seem difficult to alternate between projects that engage the level of detail of a single bolt – a kitchen renovation, lets say – and the broad strokes of setting priorities for urban design. But while a domestic project allows more time for choosing colour and texture and the meeting of two materials, a community project mobilizes the same need to compose. Two age groups must meet, and bicycle traffic must intersect with the built city.
What do you want to look at while you are washing dishes?
What do you want to see when you walk down your street?


The scale of the intervention (and the scale of the consensus) must match the situation. First, we all figure out what’s going on, then what people would most like to have around them, then finally we propose design moves to make things work the way they should.
Easy, right?
The devil is in the details, in the right translation of what is said and not said, in the changeability of the final design, in whether everyone feels that they have been heard.


The challenge in engaging people in the definition of their own project – kitchen or neighbourhood – is that a moment comes when something is made/built/poured in place. And so at least for a time, the conversation stops on a physical object. We hope, every single time, that it is the right object, that it does what it should, and that it brings some moment of beauty to the everyday acts of washing dishes and walking down the street.

couleurs 1montcalm petit persp2


La semaine dernière, j’ai su que la municipalité régionale du Cap Breton a finalisé son nouveau règlement urbain – permettant pour la première fois la construction de bâtiments en containers! Ça me fait un très grand plaisir de faire partie d’une ouverture des possibilités dans un joli coin du monde. Le chalet familiale multigénérationnel sera fièrement composée de boîtes métalliques faites pour protéger et contenir des biens en mouvement, qui dorénavant protégeront ses résidents des éléments et contiendront ses mémoires d’été.


Quelques jours après cette nouvelle de l’atlantique, j’ai assistée a un bel évènement de visionnaires et entrepreneurs sociales – les artisans du changement ( J’ai beaucoup écoutée et appris des expériences et ‘insights’ des autres participants-créateurs. Les bons risques créatifs et professionnels que les personnes présents ont pris ouvrent une fenêtre vers le monde du possible. De mon côté, je n’ai pas partagée notre petit succès réglementaire – à cause de sa contenu bureaucratique? parce que ça c’est passée sans doutes ou reculs? Donc avec un petit délai, chers artisans, je vous partage maintenant que c’est possible de changer le monde bâti – un petit règlement à la fois!

elevs copy

History of the highrise

I have just been exploring this lovely new interactive online documentary showing the history of the highrise in pictures and prose:
This NFB/NY Times coproduction follows a first exploration of highrise living through video, photos and storytelling:
Both of these projects deal with the way in which buildings and people interact – including the social and political implications of highrise life.
Amazing sites – but you might not want to click if you are working to a deadline…

Coopérative le Réverbère…habitée!

La semaine dernière, j’ai eu le plaisir de visiter un projet de coopérative que j’ai connu sur papier, de cette façon très intime qui vient de tracer les murs, les meneaux de fenêtres, de s’imaginer dans la cuisine afin de bien placer les comptoirs…

Bref j’ai connu ce bâtiment imaginaire.

8 - Plan RDC

Par la suite un collègue architecte, Paul Muth, a suivi toutes les étapes de la construction avec assiduité et créativité en collaboration avec l’architecte signataire, le très habile Douglas Alford.

Donc j’ai atterri dans les bâtiments de la coopérative comme dans un rêve réalisé. Les lignes rendus matérielles.


Et habitées! Il faut dire que l’architecte abandonne le bâtiment à peu près au moment qu’il prend vie, quand les résidents ou usagers commencent à s’installer, à accrocher des cadres, à placer le sofa, la table. On a rarement la chance de voir les enfants joueur dans la cour ou de saluer les voisins dans le corridor. Dans un projet coopératif comme celui-ci, c’est encore plus intéressant de voir les interactions entre les retraités de l’éducation et les familles de quartier. Quel plaisir de voir le bout de chemin parcouru par cette coopérative dynamique qui oeuvre depuis 2001 pour se bâtir leur milieu de vie communautaire et démocratique.


Mieux dit, le début du prochain chemin, partagé autour de repas et de jeux de ballon-chasseur dans la cour commune.