B.C. custom home designers use a unique ingredient in their building philosophy and business.

When you break it down, we all live in boxes of one kind or another. They’re typically rectangular, often stacked one upon the other, and, after they’ve had a certain amount of drywall and paint slapped on, we pronounce them fit to live in. Keith Dewey, owner of Victoria-based Zigloo Design, used the box premise to create an original building philosophy and business. He uses old shipping containers as the skeletons for his home designs, saving on costs typically associated with framing. The approach also gives new life to decertified shipping containers, which number in the tens of thousands thanks to a trade imbalance with Asia.

What does custom-built cost?

Dewey says a custom-built designer home with all the latest green features will cost about $230 a square foot, while a more affordable spec-built subdivision home goes for about $150 a square foot. “What I was shooting for was to build designer quality for spec quality price,” he explains. Using shipping containers as his main building blocks, Dewey managed to keep costs to $180 a square foot for his own eco-friendly 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom home. Using eight 20-foot-long containers, Dewey precut specific portions for windows, the stairwell and the open interior before stacking them by crane and welding the final product into place. He sank the savings from traditional framing costs into green touches such as efficient heating and sustainable bamboo flooring. “It was a lot of fun over the span of two days to see the entire framework of the building go right up,” he notes. Dewey isn’t the only builder to see the architectural possibilities in used shipping containers. Vancouver architect and Kwantlen Polytechnic University instructor Barbara Houston used one to design Victoria’s newest inner harbour eatery, Red Fish Blue Fish. The brightly coloured canteen is a beacon for the hungry and the curious. Houston prefers the term “upcycling” to describe her repurposed shipping container. “The idea of upcycling is to not take something and crush it to make something else, but to use it as it was invented to be. It’s about giving something a new use without using energy to break it down,” she says. “It has an extremely low carbon footprint.” Used shipping containers can be bought for $3,000 to $5,000, and buying new will double the price tag. Considering Atco trailers sell for up to $25,000, it’s a wonder these things aren’t flying off the shelves. Yet.