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Boom box: Shipping container homes having a moment in Edmonton

Laneway housing is a relatively new concept in Edmonton, but changes to the city’s bylaws have sparked a mini-boom in these structures and prompted one local start-up to bring shipping container suites to the city for the first time.

“I’ve been running my own construction company for the last eight years building modern infill houses,” says Honomobo co-founder Daniel Engelman, who has teamed up with Devon Siebenga, president of BigSteelBox Structures in Kelowna, B.C., for the laneway venture. “Devon has a shipping container modification background for things like offices and accommodation for the oil industry.”

Mr. Engelman and Mr. Siebenga met slightly more than a year ago through family, around the time Edmonton was changing it’s bylaws covering laneway housing, also known locally as garden, garage or backyard suites.

“I’ve been wanting to bring modular, small, efficient homes to the market for a long time,” Mr. Engelman explains, “Edmonton’s my hometown so when the city changed the rules and more sites became eligible for a garden or garage suite, the timing seemed right.”

Changes by the city included a reduction in required lot size, relaxed regulations regarding site location and an increase in the maximum height allowed, which means the vast majority of sites in Edmonton are now eligible for a garden or garage suite.

Honomobo homes range in size from just 200 square feet to 1,200 square feet and prices start from $99,000. (Honomobo)

Since the changes came into effect, permit applications have risen nearly 100 per cent with 38 applications between mid-April, 2014, and mid-April, 2015, compared with 70 applications for the same period between 2015 and 2016.

Mr. Engelman calls the city’s decision to relax the rules “really progressive.”

“Edmonton needs diversity of housing,” he said. “It needs greater density and affordability. Garden suites do that. They also allow homeowners a viable source of additional income.”

Mr. Engelman had originally planned to manufacture his shipping container homes in B.C. but realized Alberta’s oil downturn could provide an opportunity to establish the business closer to home.

“Edmonton has a workforce that’s idle and there was a factory space near Stony Plain, which had previously been building oilfield stuff, which was now available to us. It made sense to do this here.”

To give locals a taste of shipping container life, Mr. Engelman and Mr. Siebenga installed a temporary show home in Churchill Square in June.

The 528-square-foot HO3 model, consisting of three containers and featuring a full private bedroom, kitchen with an island and one full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, has proven to be Honomobo’s most popular seller. (Honomobo)

“On the first day we had a 400-person lineup waiting to go through the show home,” Mr. Engelman said. “Sales have been really strong; we’ve sold eight units since the launch event.”

Honomobo homes range in size from just 200 square feet to 1,200 square feet and prices start from $99,000.

“Our units sell for about the same or maybe marginally more than a traditionally built garage suite would cost, but our time scales are far more competitive. We have a 10-week factory schedule and aim to be on site for less than a month.”

Honomobo offers six floor plans and has no plans to offer clients custom builds.

“As soon as you start to custom build anything, the price goes up. By sticking to off the peg floor plans we can ensure clients get the best value for money.”

Interested parties have inquired from all over North America including San Francisco and Brooklyn. The fall production schedule includes units bound for Hawaii and the Gulf Islands.

Mr. Engelman says its 528-square-foot HO3 model, consisting of three containers and featuring a full private bedroom, kitchen with an island and one full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, has so far proven to be their most popular seller.

Exterior rendering of a Honomobo model home. (Honomobo)

“I’d say 50 per cent of our sales have been rental investments. You can add a container home to your mortgage for about $500 a month and rent it out for $1,000 a month. That’s pretty appealing for people. The other 50 per cent are either for aging parents or adult children.

“We wanted to sell 50 homes in the first year,” he said. “We’re well on track to achieve that.”

Helping Honomobo hit target, Mr. Engelman recently negotiated with the city on a seed project for the site of the old York Hotel on Boyle Street, downtown. Mr. Engelman’s shipping container apartment building will take approximately three months to complete and he hopes to install the units in spring 2017.

“It’s kind of a seedy neighbourhood,” Mr. Engelman said. “Nobody wanted to be first on site there. We’re going to be putting up an 18-unit apartment building with commercial space on the ground level. We’re negotiating with the city on deferring the land cost and they’ve been really supportive.”

The city is also supporting homeowners with garage and garden suite buildability engagement sessions, which continue to refine the rules around gaining permission for and building laneway housing.

The interior of a Honomobo home. (Honomobo)

One of the major barriers currently being debated is that of discretionary use, whereby neighbours within a 60-metre radius of the proposed build have the right to appeal. A recent presentation suggested that the city was considering downgrading this to “encourage or require notification and conversation” between “direct neighbours.”

For Mr. Engelman, any amendments that make the process of installing a garden or garage suite easier are welcome.

His own shipping container suite, the first to receive approval in Edmonton, has recently been installed in the backyard of his Richey neighbourhood home, which he shares with his wife. He plans to use it as a showroom all summer before renting it out to a student in September.

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