Life in a Box
2008-05-01 | Kathryn Semcow
Doesn’t really sound too appealing does it? But with a container converted to look like a Spanish villa or even a residence from Dubai’s Old Town, who wouldn’t be interested? These, among others, are some of the solutions being provided by Penguin Container Trading and Repairing Services LLC (PCTRS).
"I will live in a container," proclaims Rod Dyck, General Manager, Penguin Container Trading and Repairing Services LLC (PCTRS).
His company, PCTRS, converts containers – yes, shipping containers - into what he describes as "permanently mobile living solutions." These solutions include offices, homes, kitchens, classrooms, washrooms and relief shelter units – almost any structure you can think of.
When asked for a list of what he can build with containers, Dyck responds, "The question should be, ‘What can’t you build with containers?’"
"We even have a very unique swimming pool with wall-to-wall glass."
Dyck says he tends to use 3mm non-corrosive steel alloy containers measuring 9 feet 6 inches x 8 x 40 feet, because they offer higher ceilings than the traditional 8 x 8 x 40 foot containers. "The shipping industry is moving to that size anyways, because everyone wants to jam more stuff into a container," he adds.
PCTRS converts and fabricates these containers at its 115,000 sq foot facility in Al Quoz, which features two covered workshops of 8,000 sq feet each, 16 reefer points and a covered store. Equipment used includes hydraulic panel straightening jibs, mig welding sets, plasma cutting sets, airless spray painting equipment and steam cleaning machines.
"I can make a container look like Old Town in Dubai, I can make it look like a Spanish villa, I can make it look like a modern and clean-cut European architectural unit. There’s nothing I can’t build with containers, except maybe go past 14 units high," he says.
In fact, Dyck has designs for a 14-storey-hotel made of containers, as well as an entire community made from the storage units.
He is in talks with the developer of The Villa residential project on the Dubai-Al Ain road to build villas ranging from 6,000 to 12,000 sq feet. "We’ll give them the guts, 80 per cent of the house; but the other 20 per cent has to be finished, like the archways, railings and tiles."
And, of course, PCTRS will be manufacturing Dyck’s four-bedroom villa. "When my ten years is up in Dubai, I’ll just ship it back to Canada and live in it there," says the Chilliwack, British Columbia native.
"My men want to live in our solution as well," he adds. "I’ve got the same problem any other company does, I have to house 500 men. I’ve been through Al Quoz and there’s no way I could put my men in there without them hating me. Why not live in what you build?"
But before these designs can become a reality, Dyck needs approval from Dubai Municipality, which he says will likely come soon. "We just tripped their brains when I said I could build them labour accommodations," he says.
And container solutions are tripping the brains of many on the international architecture scene. Trendy houses made of the steel structures are showing up in cities throughout Europe and North America, and appearing on the pages of design magazines. A university in Amsterdam, in fact, has built an entire student residence out of containers. "It’s nouveau," says Dyck.
These containers are not only stylish, but inexpensive. Dyck estimates that traditional labour housing for 1,000 workers costs a company in Dubai US$12.4 million over five years, while containerised solutions would cost around US$4.1 million. "My solution can save them US$8.2 million over five years," he says.
"There’s only one weakness in the container, and that’s the mental perception of humans on living in a container," says Dyck.
"You’re not living in metal. The structure of your house is metal, but inside is an interior using the same materials you would use for any other house. If you want a gold box, I’ll line the container with gold."
No waste Refabricating used containers helps PCTRS cut costs, according to Dyck. "With recycling, I save myself a fortune," he says.
While the shipping industry gives containers a 10-year life cycle, he says one that is well-maintained can last up to 100 years. "We can take an old container and refurbish it right to a 95 per cent new look," he explains.
Despite their quantity, used containers are surprisingly hard to come by. "You almost have to go black market on them," says Dyck. "They’re out there, but everyone is hanging on to them. They’re hard to procure and there are no specific timelines as to when I’m going to get them, or what amount."
"As we grow bigger, I’ll be able to attract the big shipping companies to give me more," he adds.
PCTRS’s entire manufacturing process is geared towards saving resources - even paint thinner is recycled. "The system operates like a tea kettle," explains Dyck. "You boil the thinner to a certain degree, it turns to a steam, the steam condenses, and pours back as a liquid into the drum."
"I cut down from a 45 gallon drum every week to one every two months," he boasts.
Dyck says most components of the containers are recyclable or reusable, for example the gypsum rock, fibreglass insulation, copper wire, switches and steel studs.
"When the customer is done with the product, I’ll either buy the whole thing back and make it into something brand new, or sell it off for scrap," he says.
Dyck says he can also build the units to be environmentally friendly, for example installing solar panels and on-site sewage treatment, water treatment, and water heating facilities.
"These designs are part of a completely sustainable, renewable, recyclable world that we need to live in," says Dyck. "It’s 100 per cent possible. There’s no engineer, designer, or architect that can tell me any different."
Changing the world Dyck says he first learned of PCTRS after seeing the company’s ad in a newspaper in a Dubai Starbucks.
He had been working for a company providing similar container solutions for the oil and gas industry, but had been let go for what he describes as "philosophical" reasons. "I bring that Canadian freedom of spirit, freedom of men, labour standards, Canadian practices, environmental practices, health and safety standards," he says, explaining that these values were not in line with his previous employer.
Dyck called up PCTRS and, after a six and a half hour meeting, he was ready to manage the company, bringing his values with him.
He says he is in this project for more than the money, as he wants to provide affordable and sustainable housing to the masses. "I want to change the world. I want to put solar powered treatment plants in places you can’t get to. I want to bring little villages fresh water generators based on sustainable principles."
And with PCTRS’s planned capacity, he might just reach his goal. The company has plans for a US$27.3 million, 350,000 sq foot factory in Dubai Industrial City, what Dyck describes as a "solar-powered, self-sewage contained, water-treated, robotic, computerised inventory-controlled facility."
"We’ll have 128 containers on line at a time. When we’re at our maximum capacity, we should be able to have 150 single-family living solutions a day."
Dyck says PCTRS, which will soon change its name to Smartbox, could eventually face a used container shortage. "When we reach those kind of quantities, I have no choice but to get new containers from container manufacturers."
So he’s discussing building a container factory in Yemen. The company is also eyeing manufacturing points in India, as well as Mexico, which could help them tap into the North American market.
"Two years from now, nobody will be able to say they can house 40,000 people a year," says Dyck. "But I will be able to."
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