Tucked away in the idyllic forest of Bobcaygeon, Ontario, sits a multi-prong structure that looks a bit like landed spaceship. It’s the Octopod—a cabin built of upcycled shipping containers. The Octopod is made using seven shipping containers, each functioning as their own space within the cabin. There’s a dining room, kitchen, a master bedroom and kids’ bedroom, a two-piece washroom and a Finnish-inspired wood-fired sauna, a workshop, and a room for storage. Situated in a hub-and-spoke design, the containers meet in the middle to form an octagonal-shaped living room that opens to the deck outdoors. Building with old shipping containers—with their distinctive shape, corrugated metal siding, and industrial fixtures—is an unusual idea. And yet the Octopod is spacious, thoroughly modern and most surprisingly, cozy.
Completed this past spring, the cabin was designed by Workbench, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in sustainable energy management services. Co-founder Jason Rioux says his company wanted to show that shipping containers make excellent cabins in off-grid areas. “Canada is a net importer of container-shipped products and has a growing number of shipping containers piling up in local stockyards,” Rioux said in an email interview. “We pursued this project to show the Ontario market that building permanent structures with shipping containers can be achieved.”
For the design, Workbench worked to retain the integrity of the shipping container, which meant minimizing the need for any unnecessary cutting and welding. Instead, the firm utilized—and even celebrated—the natural shape of the boxes. “The key here was to work with the container for what they are, and don’t work against their shortcomings.” Rather than cutting out windows in the containers for natural light, Workbench installed glass sliding doors that open to the outdoors. The original steel container doors remain intact and can be closed over the glass doors like giant steel shutters for extra security when the owners leave at the end of a long weekend.
While the exterior of Octopod appears futuristic and industrial the interiors are the opposite. The custom-made flooring is made of tongue-and-groove pine planks stained a light grey and the walls are lined with homey unfinished wood. The main room’s roof is a beautiful display of rustic post and beam work. Interior decorator Rebecca Purdy outfitted the interiors with cozy furnishings that speak to both the space’s humble beginnings and its current natural surroundings among trees.
On top of its chic design, the Octopod is a sustainable engineering marvel. “The Octopod is completely off grid,” says Rioux. “The key to cost effective off-grid living is to reduce your energy demand requirements, be creative on designing efficient systems and then sizing the power system to meet those needs.” The power utilities come from a photovoltaic solar array system that is connected to an energy storage battery system, which is the “heart of any off-grid” system according to Rioux. Meanwhile, the water system is a mix of old and new technologies. The water is supplied via a traditional drilled well, but a solar powered slow pump retrieves the water into an elevated water tower reservoir that’s located in the living room’s vaulted ceiling. “The reservoir then provides gravity fed water supply to all the cottage fixtures, 24 hours per day and several days of water storage, without the need for any water pumps or pressure tanks,” Rioux explains. Since the water system is located indoors, it functions year-round.
Heating and cooling the space required experimentation and brainpower. To combat the hot, muggy summers in Ontario’s cottage country, Woodbench created a white membrane roof system that radiates away any heat from the sun to reduce the need for air conditioning. Additionally, the Octopod features a passive cooling system via the 15-foot windows located on the main room’s roof, which naturally circulates cool air inside. In the winter, a wood stove and solar thermal collectors heat the space. The shipping containers are also insulated with high-density spray foam and are completed sealed and welded to keep heat loss minimal. Right now, the Octopod is a one-of-a-kind project, but Workbench hopes it will set a new precedent and inspire other Canadians to build their own shipping container cabins. “The project is the proving grounds for future container homes and cottages in Ontario. So many designs can be dreamt up. Even playing with children’s Lego blocks can lead to inspiring new layouts and ideas,” says Rioux. “The trick is to turn these designs into reality.”
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