Imagine living off-grid, in recycled shipping containers laid out in the shape of a spider that keep out bugs — and burglars — in the woods.
Jason Rioux and his family do just that.
By using the recycled material and harnessing the power of the sun, Rioux has created a unique family cabin near Bobcaygeon. Meet the Octopod.
The structure resembles a large spider — minus one leg — crouched below an octagon-shaped white roof. The shipping containers fan out like spokes in a wheel from a central living room, each one housing a different room in the 1,450-square-foot cabin. Construction cost totalled about $130,000.
Rioux, 38, vice-president of NRStor, a Toronto-based energy-storage project developer, has a passion for sustainability and is intrigued by shipping container construction. When carpenter ants destroyed the old cottage that previously sat on the waterfront site, Rioux and his wife Victoria wanted to rebuild a dwelling that would be energy efficient and withstand the ravages of insects, mice and other critters.
Sourcing shipping or sea containers — those large corrugated steel boxes used to ship cargo by air, sea or land — wasn’t difficult, as several yards around Toronto sell them. Rioux bought containers for an average $4,000 each that are all a year old, made on the same assembly line, consistent in size and in good condition. He opted for 20-foot containers rather than 40-foot, as they can be shipped on flatbed trucks, while longer versions require a transport truck. He bought extra tall containers, so finished ceiling heights would be eight feet.
The dark grey containers were delivered before the old cabin came down and were used for storage until construction started. A full-sized crane placed the containers on the foundation, which took two hours. The living room sits on a cement slab, while the shipping containers are on concrete piers. While it wasn’t necessary, Rioux built a white roof over the containers to deflect heat and to keep the containers from fading.
Originally, Rioux and Victoria considered using four containers to make an X-shaped cabin and used their three kids’ Lego blocks to work out their ideas. They settled on an octagon shape, built around a large central living room with a 15-foot ceiling (to provide an area for water tank storage) and clerestory windows. They decided to use seven, rather than eight containers, so they could have a gap to create a walkout and view to the lake. Their seven-year-old daughter, a fan of the British children’s TV series The Octonauts, named the new cabin the Octopod.
“It turned out awesome,” Rioux said. “We knew we wanted to live off-grid and we knew we wanted some features that were missing in the old cabin. For instance, it had an outside water tank so we couldn’t use it in winter, so we said ‘let’s make sure we can run water in winter’ and put the water tank in the ceiling of the living room.”
Because most builders and tradesmen are unfamiliar with container building, Rioux extensively researched the project and worked with a designer, architect and structural engineer. He sought to minimize cutting and welding of the shipping containers to maintain the structural integrity and wanted to use solar energy as the cabin’s chief power source.
“All local guys put it together and it was a community project in a way,” said Rioux. “Ninety per cent of the people were excited to work on it because it was fun and new. The other 10 per cent don’t like the style and thought it was too weird.”
The biggest challenge was finding the right insulation to use with metal, as condensation and mould could be an issue, as the metal went from hot in summer to below freezing temperatures in winter. Batt insulation and a ceramic insulating paint didn’t work — the right fit was high-density foam insulation, which cost $20,000. The interior of the cabin was finished with plywood that gives it a rustic look. It suits the woodsy setting but also withstands freezing and thawing.
A benefit of container-ship construction is insects can’t permeate the high-density foam and animals can’t chew through metal to get inside. And it also keeps another type of nuisance at bay.
“It’s annoying when people break in and steal your stuff,” Rioux said. “This place bolts down like Fort Knox.”
When Rioux and his family aren’t using the Octopod, he and Victoria rent it out to guests on Airbnb.
“We’ve had a number of people stay and one from last year is going to do a repeat,” he said. “It’s quirky, it’s not for everyone. It’s not a normal house and the systems are different. Guests learn they have to conserve and keep an eye on the water level and only use power when they need it.”
For others interested in building their own shipping container cottage, Rioux sells DIY shipping-container cabin kits at seacontainercabin.com.
Off-grid at the Octopod
Some of the energy-efficient features Jason Rioux designed into his Octopod cottage:
Airtight building envelope: The combination of sealed and welded shipping containers and high-density spray foam insulation creates a tightly sealed building envelope. Heat loss is minimized and heating requirements reduced.
Renewable heating system: Heat is supplied by a wood stove and in-floor heating that utilizes heat from the wood stove and outside solar thermal collectors. The heated concrete floor stores and regulates heat for long periods of time.
Passive cooling: A centre cupola roof with opening windows at a 15-foot height exhausts warm air collected in the building and draws cool fresh air from the outer container ends via natural circulation. No fans or electricity are required. Due to the 360-degree octagon shape, cross breezes are possible regardless of the wind direction.
Off-grid energy: Power utilities come from a 1-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array system connected to an energy-storage battery system. Energy storage is a vital component of off-grid systems, as well as wise use of energy.
Gravity-fed water tank: Two small solar panels power a pump that pumps water to a storage tank stored in the living ceiling. Gravity brings the water to the cottage fixtures.
Wiring and lighting: The Octopod is wired in DC (direct current) instead of AC (alternating current) that most homes use that has inherent electricity losses. Highly energy-efficient LED lighting uses DC power to operate; as do the HVAC fans and a high-efficiency DC refrigerator.
White membrane roof: State-of-the-art thermoplastic roof system is a “cool” roof that radiates away any heat from the sun and reduces the need for air conditioning.
Saturday, July 16
Tracy Hanes – The Toronto Star