Design & DIY

Prefab-ulous shipping container cottage

Todd McMillan and his wife, Kristen, own Ben Homes, which specializes in small custom builds—they handle the design together, and Todd builds the structures with his team.

So when they had the chance to build their own cottage, they knew what they wanted. “Only what was required for us to sleep, eat, and relax,” says Todd. The layout is simple but unusual: the main structure is an eight-by-20-foot shipping container, surrounded by a deck, a screened porch, and a bathroom with outdoor access.

“Shipping containers provide an easy prefab base,” says Todd. The container’s small footprint does present some challenges, such as a small kitchen. “We built it like a boat kitchen,” says Todd. “We use a sink, toaster oven, and under-counter fridge as our main tools. We barbecue most things, so we didn’t need a cooktop.”

He and Kristen built their cottage in their Burlington, Ont., shop in two weeks, then delivered it to the poured concrete foundation in 2013. “My dog and I slept in the cabin that night,” says Todd.

A family affair

The McMillan container-cabin sits on Todd’s mother and stepfather’s property, next to their 400 sq. ft. cottage, where everyone gathers for family meals. “We wanted to spend as much time as possible together as a family,” says Todd. “It’s always easier to be present when you get away from your everyday routines.”

Todd and Kristen built the container cottage up off the ground, to keep critters out and air moving on all sides. Even though the McMillans’ structure is small, the roof extends to cover the wraparound deck, increasing the living space.

This designer and builder created her dream cabin for $20,000

“The overhang around the perimeter gives us protection from the elements,” says Todd. To save on living space inside the container, they built the bathroom outside, open to the air through a cedar slat wall that keeps things fresh (the bathroom hooks up to a septic). “The natural light that shines in during the late afternoon is really beautiful,” says Kristen. “Perfect for a shower before dinner prep time.”

Though small, the cottage has been a cheerful oasis for the McMillans. “We’ve learned that you really don’t need a lot of space,” Kristen says of her first few years in the small cabin. “It took a year or two to adjust, as I used to be an over-packer, especially with two young kids. But now we’ve adjusted, and we really don’t miss anything when we’re up here.”

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