Company floats idea as affordable housing solution

Shipping containers are repurposed into large modular housing complexes at a fraction of normal construction costs

A shortage of affordable housing in small towns appears to be a fairly widespread problem in Alberta.

The Alberta Rural Development Network has resolved to help remedy the situation.

“We put out a request for expressions of interest. We were looking to see if rural communities were interested in getting affordable housing,” said ARDN executive director Dee Ann Benard.

“The initial response was huge. We had in the end over 40 communities come forward, and more since then, saying yes, they have a real need for affordable housing and they would like to see that happen in their community.”

The non-profit ARDN has partnered with a Calgary modular building manufacturer to explore options to build townhouses or multi-family apartment buildings in rural Alberta.

First on board, equipped with funds garnered by ARDN, are the communities of Sexsmith, Banff, Lac la Biche, Boyle and Fort Macleod.

Benard said they will use the money for needs assessment, feasibility studies and in some cases writing a business plan to ensure new housing is useful and sustainable in the longer term.

“We’re working with five communities now and we have several more in the pipeline, but they have received some seed funding from CMHC, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and we are working with them to do those preliminary steps.”

An additional grant from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation will allow ARDN to help the communities at a much lower cost, said Benard.

She said many communities have already identified a need for more housing but lack the funds to do the necessary studies. In addition, hiring construction firms for larger projects is often too expensive for small-town resources because of travel and accommodation for work crews.

That’s where Ladacor entered the picture. The Calgary-based firm makes larger-scale modular housing using shipping containers as the basic framework.

“It seems like a nice solution,” said Ladacor president Joe Kiss.

“Typically our work is in rural type areas. We’re able to, between ARDN and Ladacor, very effectively, basically walk the communities through the projects.”

Both Benard and Ladacor ack-nowledge the public’s initial skepticism about housing built from shipping containers.

“We use the shipping container as one part of an engineered module,” said Kiss.

“So we take multiple shipping containers. We mount them into a structure. Nobody wants to live in just a shipping container, so we’re able to open them up. We’re able to create, for instance, large meeting rooms and conference rooms and reception areas. You won’t even know you’re in a shipping container.”

The units are one-trip containers, added Kiss, and as the name implies, they are nearly new when repurposed by Ladacor.

The firm has built a large hotel in Sioux Lookout, Ont., and is in the process of building a four-storey hotel in Bruderheim, Alta.

Benard said Ladacor’s units are mostly built at the firm’s Calgary factory, eliminating the costs of having a construction crew on site for long periods.

The units are then shipped and erected on a prepared site. Local crews can do the foundation work and other construction and finishing as needed.

Depending on design, the containers can be stacked vertically or horizontally.

“It’s really a fast process, highly certified and a very consistent product that you’re getting,” she said.

No construction is underway in the communities involved. Preliminary studies will document existing housing inventory, average housing costs, average income and who might use additional housing, be it seniors, families or people with disabilities.

Kat Done, housing liaison with Fort Macleod’s Family and Community Support Services, said the community is in the study stage, using a $10,000 CMHC grant.

If multi-unit housing is built, “it would change the landscape of homelessness in Fort Macleod,” said Done.

“If we make it affordable, we now have families who can live here affordably. Once you provide that housing stability, instead of having a family in crisis and a family at risk, you now have a family that can contribute back to your community. You have a family that is going to pay taxes in your community and buy groceries in your community and send their kids to school in your community and maybe volunteer their time in your community.”

Done said many of her clients are young couples with young children or large families. Both types of clients face difficulty finding affordable housing that meets their needs.

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