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Container homes open up new housing options in Simcoe County

Being able to build in a controlled environment allows for more cost certainty and less worries about potential delays due to weather, says proponent

From creating housing units for industrial sector employees in Canada’s north to affordable housing units and custom cottages in Simcoe County, Northern Shield Development Corporation is putting a unique twist on the conventional construction market.

The company, which specializes in building modular and container buildings, initially got its start building housing units out of shipping containers for the oil and gas, power, and mining marketplace, explained owner and president Steve Marshall, adding the company then bought back a large quantity of those containers and began turning them into a variety of different affordable housing options.

Northern Shield, he continued, was born out of a joint venture with Cree First Nations for a power project where Northern Shield supplied the camp. The focus then shifted to creating housing in Indigenous communities and, over the years, Marshall said they’ve been slowly bringing their unique housing concept to more southern areas - including affordable housing projects in Orillia and Barrie.

An affordable housing solution

While Marshall couldn’t disclose the location of the Barrie site, he did say it is part of the County of Simcoe and the City of Barrie’s affordable housing strategy. Container homes, he explained,  offer a unique - and often more affordable - building option.

“The answer a year ago would be different from the answer today. The bottom line is shipping containers is an alternative to conventional construction," said Marshall.

"There have been a whole bunch of adaptive technologies that people have worked with to try to figure out other ways to supply housing. The mission behind looking at these other options is really trying to find ways to lower the overall cost of construction," he explained.

"New builds, cost of real estate and costs of existing homes has far surpassed people’s ability to pay for construction.”

The conventional marketplace, he added, is extremely taxed right now.

“We have a labour shortage. There are so many housing starts, so many condo projects and so much construction work that anyone who is in the industry can barely keep up,” he said.

“Manufactured modular housing is a different process because you’re not necessarily relying on the same construction trades that the conventional building market relies on," Marshall said. "You’re in a manufactured setting and while the people you’re hiring are very knowledgeable about construction, it’s more of a manufacturing environment, which allows us to tap into a different employment pool than conventional construction.”

Being able to build in a controlled environment also allows for a little bit more cost certainty and cost control as you don’t have to worry about the same delays and headaches that conventional construction projects typically run into with weather issues.

The overruns and the unknowns of labour costs are mitigated by manufactured housing, explained Marshall. 

“You’re building a shell and the frame of your building is now a steel framed container. You’re not into that whole wood rat race right now with wood costs just going absolutely bananas," he noted.

Marshall said prior to the meteoric jump in the cost of lumber due to the pandemic, he would have estimated the cost of using a shipping container (based solely on materials), would have netted out roughly the same as a traditional build. Where you end up saving money, he noted, is your speed to delivery. 

“With conventional construction, you’re waiting for each step of the construction to be completed and pass (inspection) before the next phase can start.

"Quite often, their best laid plans are usually out the window in the first 30 days of construction and you’re chasing the eight ball right from the get go, whereas in a manufactured environment, there is some sort of security and a different build process,” he said. “The cost of all construction materials are on the rise, and the goal is to remove as many cost variables that you possibly can to try and keep the build price as low as possible.”

Northern Shield is currently in the process of building bachelor-style transitional housing units that will be located in Barrie, which Marshall said will help fill a gap in the marketplace for housing that desperately needs filled. 

“There are a lot of people in rental units or in that first layer of emergency housing that can’t get out of the shelter or supportive housing because the product is not available for them in the market," said Marshall.

"The goal of this is to provide, in a small way, another little blip of units to alleviate some of the pressure to Barrie’s housing crisis, really starting at the hardest to house level.”

Expanding their horizons

The demand for the style of housing the company offers has grown significantly over the last few years, so Northern Shield has begun to expand their horizons to include single-family residential and custom-built housing/cottages - starting with a shipping container cottage that was completed last summer on his family’s property in Tiny Township. 

“You see it on Pinterest and you see it on all different facets of social media, but there’s not a lot of people who do it like us locally," he explained. "There are only a handful of people that do shipping container homes in a meaningful way,” said Marshall, noting on an average week the company would typically get about four inquiries specific to their custom container houses.

During the pandemic that number has continued to grow, and as people have seen Marshall’s cottage listed to rent on Airbnb. “We really built that cottage as a show piece to show some of the things that are possible using this style of build.”

A multifaceted approach

The business, explained Marshall, is split into a few different facets. While there is still a focus on the multi-residential marketplace - which includes mainstream units as well as affordable housing units, they are also looking to create a place for themselves in the regular housing market.

“We are very passionate and vocal about building affordably ... and we really try to service that market but on the other side of it, we have the custom units (such as) your accessory dwellings like Granny suites, backyard units, bunkies, modular offices and pods and pool bars. We have even built COVID isolation units,” said Marshall.

Another project currently on the go at their Barrie manufacturing site, is a floating shipping container that could serve as a floating bunkie or a dockside pool bar. Most recently, Northern Shield has located an 8x53 foot container in the main wharf in Gravenhurst, which will serve not only as a temporary office space for Muskoka Steamships as their office undergoes renovation, but also a showpiece for visitors to the wharf to see what Northern Shield does.

Focused on a solution

With affordable housing in the city being such a big issue, Marshall said they are extremely focused on trying to help create a solution, and are putting out a call to individuals who might have land - or even different concepts and ideas - that could allow for this type of construction to happen on their property.

“We’re very active in trying to find a few other locations to try to replicate building opportunities. We are looking for locations that have an existing house on it … that has a big yard. We have a concept and have modules that we’ve specifically designed that meet requirements of the city and all things affordable under requirements for housing here in Barrie,” he said. “So we are trying to find people to partner up with to use their existing space to put our units on."

About the Author: Nikki Cole

Nikki Cole has been a community issues reporter for BarrieToday since February, 2021
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