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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Radio updates

The nice people from Information Morning on CBC radio in Sydney came out to Mira Bay on Friday morning to have a look around: CBC interview

Outside – nearly finished! Inside…

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The skin of the building is nearly complete – a few shingles left here and there, some mosquito screen to install, a little metal capping at the edges and the house will be properly weathertight. The shingles change everything, taking the house from a tyvek and metal box to an actual building in just a few (thousand) staples and cuts.
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Inside, there is slow but steady progress as infrastructure gets laid in by electricians and gas installers and plumbers. Installing through containers has its challenges (particularly to drill bits) and the open plan means that much of the wiring passes under the floor along with the plumbing and the gaslines. But the house now has working plugs inside – and its residents have rediscovered the miracle of refrigeration!
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Meantime some flooring has to be readied for more infrastructure – namely a woodstove and a toilet. The tiles for the woodstove are pretty standard, but a small channel has been included to house rocks from the beach in front of the house. The container floor has been sanded and sealed with AFM Hardcoat to seal the insectiside in the plywood and keep it out of the air. The resulting floor finish shows some of the scars of use through a nice patina of clearcoat.
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Next stop – insulation and finishing….
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The magic of electricity!

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It was an exciting week on site in Mira Bay.
The house went from this:
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to this:
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I am a simple architect and don’t pretend to actually understand how electricity works (or radio, or the internet…). But normally, power arrives via a wire in a trench or a pole then tools can be plugged in and people can read at night.
Here electricity arrived all on its own, with help from the excellent Appleseed energy team. They spent some time on the roof with the well designed clamps that allow all 12 solar panels to be installed on the standing seams.
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The only hole in the roof is under a solar panel, where the wiring gets consolidated into a combiner box before running through the roof space (and through the steel beam!) to land in the electrical room. There a controller panel sends the power to the batteries, before passing through an inverter to turn the DC power to AC power for the electrical panel.
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Once the last wire was connected and the two utility plugs were installed, there was power! Until that very moment the site had been a camp, so between the coleman stove and the battery power lamps, no one had anything to plug in to the new plugs! Luckily, Brian from Appleseed had a saw in the back of his truck and he obligingly cut a piece of wood for us so we could see the solar go. Never has a circular saw seemed so miraculous.
And later, after the sun set, the night seemed a bit less dark.
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Inside at Mira Bay

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I opened a door and went inside the Mira Bay house two weeks ago. Inside! It was an inside without rooms – an envelope with doors and windows, furnished with giant metal boxes. I made a trip to check on the construction but especially to help coordinate the cutting of the containers, and to make any necessary adjustments between the paper drawings and the site conditions. Everything was nicely sealed up onsite, and I was helping to poke holes in the building envelope they had just finished closing. This is probably the biggest difference with standard construction where the walls are constructed around where the windows will be. Containers arrive air and water-tight, and then we slice them open to make them inhabitable. I suppose by drawing a window in a wood wall we are creating conditions for the building to be less weather-tight, but it is even more striking when we cut open the weather tight wall that exists in order to allow light and air to come in, in order to make it a space instead of just a container.

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The container walls of the house on Mira Bay will be exposed on the outside, so all the cuts have to be right the first time. We can’t un-cut the exterior finish. We measured three times before cutting – working around the fact that it’s hard to draw a line on corrugated metal (a laser is a must!). Once we were sure the size and location was right, our very skilled metalworker put his grinder to work cutting the first hole. Happily, a good grinder in the right hands cuts container walls like butter. Only with more sparks. Even the corners are cleanly cut and nicely finished. The opening was cleaned up with the grinder and then a 1/4″ x 1-1/2″ flat bar was welded in with a continuous weld to seal the outside cladding. Cutting the windows to expose the view and let in the light has a special kind of drama.

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The window sits just inside the flat bar frame. This allows us to eliminate the exterior trim – all we need to add is a line of caulking. As we are insulating inside the containers, the interior framing takes the weight of the window assembly. The detail looks clean and simple. And so the cutting and installing proceeds, punching holes and sealing them up one by one. And since we are matching the container paint with the original paint supplier, we can paint out the flat bars and the weld marks to give it all a nice finish.
We’ll lose a few letters and numbers in the cutting and painting, but we aim to keep most of the transport-ready finishing as a salute to the origins of the rooms of the house, the window inserts marking the transition from sea-can to room with a view.

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Une presqu’enveloppe

Heureusement, l’hiver arrive plus tard au bord de la mer, ce qui nous donne le temps de fermer l’enveloppe avant le mauvais temps…

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Roof over Mira

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Well, it’s not actually a roof yet, but the bones of the roof are going up at a remarkable rate. These moments in the rough framing when the building appears before our very eyes….they are amazing. In the long journey of bringing a building from idea to place, this is the exciting part. The action scene.

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