Design & DIY

This is what it’s like to cottage in a shipping container

For these Thunder Bay A-frame owners, shipping containers—cost-effective and stylish—were just the thing to replace their falling-down family camp

The Leishman family was puttering around on a sunny spring day in 2016 at their Dog Lake, Ont., cottage, about 60 km north of Thunder Bay, when an ear-splitting rumble filled the air and the floor tilted under their feet. “We were levelling the fridge, and shaking it back and forth a little bit,” explains Darren Leishman. It seems that the movement put just enough strain on the cinder block foundation to make it collapse. “We actually rode the camp off the foundation all the way onto the ground while we were inside.” The experience shook them all up. “It was horrifying,” says his wife, Kellie. “I felt like my legs were giving out beneath me. It was just so scary and loud.” By a stroke of great good luck, no one was hurt. Still, the resulting wreckage of the camp meant that their recent conversations about what to do about the aging building had a new urgency.  

For 40 years, three generations of the Leishman family have spent spring, summer, and fall at their off-grid camp at the northernmost bay of Dog Lake. They love the history behind the quirky 400-sq.ft. A-frame that Monika Leishman, Darren’s mom, had picked out from a book of plans. James “Big Jim” Leishman, Darren’s dad, had painstakingly built the structure over two summers, ferrying over each and every tool, nail, and board in a 16-foot aluminum boat. Big Jim passed away in 2014, and respecting the camp he built and loved was important to the Leishmans. (Darren, however, still recalls the ongoing disagreements he had with his dad over the need to fix the foundation. Big Jim made the argument that since you could put a marble on the floor and it didn’t roll, everything was fine.)

The family put the contents of the ruined building into storage and parked a trailer on the property for two years while they considered their options. When Big Jim had impulsively bought a ticket and won the right to buy the uncleared lot in a property lottery in 1979 (“the only lottery I ever won cost me thousands of dollars,” he used to joke), he only had two years to build on the site, or the family would forfeit their rights to it. His focus had been on a simple structure without a lot of creature comforts. And while the site was initially water-access, Jim and a neighbour bulldozed a winding, single-lane dirt road in the 1980s, so it was now more accessible for building.

Darren and Kellie half-heartedly tossed around the idea of building themselves. We considered gradually creating something over the course of a few years, but it’s not something we would have been able to manage from start to finish,” says Kellie. Then one day in 2018, their daughter, Phoebe, came home from work and suggested working with a new, local business called ModBox. The company repurposes used shipping containers to create buildings. Intrigued, Darren and Kellie booked a meeting with the owners, brothers Anthony and John McRae. “John met us at the camp. He was very familiar with this area because they have a camp on Dog Lake as well,” says Kellie. He recommended a modular build that would be done in their facility and then be reassembled on-site, saving work crews about an hour of drive time each day to reach Dog Lake. Darren and Kellie were sold on the modular idea—it meant the camp could go up quickly—as well as on the low-maintenance steel exterior. But shipping containers? “Nobody really knew what that meant,” says Kellie. 

They checked out ModBox’s sample build at a local home and garden show and did online research. They liked what they saw. And the sustainability aspect was appealing. “We liked the idea of repurposing the containers and not using a lot of wood,” says Kellie. Bonus: at $200 per square foot, the price was comparable to a traditional build. While Big Jim may have balked at the idea of hiring someone to build, he was definitely of fan of reusing materials, says Darren, remembering a childhood summer when his dad showed him how to disassemble some free wooden pallets, straighten the nails, and then use the wood and nails to build a shed at camp. The kids, Phoebe, 23, and Jett, 21, were also on board. “A camp built out of shipping containers was a way to keep my grandfather’s legacy going—he was always finding a way to reuse things and that’s how we were all brought up,” says Phoebe.

Their original design included a second storey with a sleeping loft on one side and a deck on the other, but when that plan exceeded their budget, Darren sketched out a different configuration: a C-shaped, 1200 sq. ft. bungalow—essentially the same, but without a second floor. “I included all the things that I knew the family wanted,” he says. “It was always a big deal for Kellie to have the screen porch, we knew everybody wanted their own bedrooms, and that’s just the way it all shook out. It seemed the most efficient way to use that floor space.”

ModBox gave the thumbs-up to the design and created plans with architectural software. Then, a team got to work at the company’s indoor facility, carefully planning out each step. “The soundness of the structure is the most important thing,” explains ModBox co-owner Anthony McRrae. “You’re cutting these containers apart. There’s a lot of work that goes on.” The company engineer calculated structural loads, for instance, so the completed building would remain sturdy and straight. The next steps were welding the steel container modules together, doing the interior framing using steel studs, installing windows and doors, and subcontracting an electrician and a plumber. The interior walls were sprayed with four inches of spray foam for an R-value of 24, enough to insulate the building from heat, cold, and noise. Then they were covered with drywall. The Leishmans opted for a slightly sloped roof built over the containers’ flat top. This could accommodate six 355-watt solar panels while still allowing snow to slide off. 

The McRraes and their crew hauled away the old camp after the family salvaged wood and windows to upgrade the outhouse and sheds. As part of the camp reno, the Leishmans also jacked up their barrel sauna from the spot it had occupied since the mid-80s and used a truck and trailer to move it a short distance down the hill, closer to the lake. (This “put it where it should have been all along,” says Darren. “Another thing I argued with my dad about for 30 years.) Jett and Darren removed an exterior staircase from the old camp and repurposed it as steps from the sauna deck to the waterfront.  


In the meantime, the work crew created a firm foundation with a commanding view of the lake, excavating the footprint with a backhoe and adding many truckloads of B gravel. Once compacted, they topped it with A gravel. Concrete pads, two feet square and eight inches thick, sit on top of the gravel. “This is a common foundation for a three-season camp that doesn’t need a basement,” says McRrae, adding that it is often used for conventional three-season builds as well. Lastly, the crew added a system of wood beams, to which the container components would be bolted. 

In fall 2018, eight weeks after Leishmans signed the building contract, the camp was almost ready to be assembled, but a delayed kitchen cabinet shipment, followed by a November snowfall that made the road too slippery for the flatbed trucks, meant the plans were pushed back to spring 2019. Still, those were the only hiccups. Knowing the challenges of building a rural property, the Leishmans were surprised (“What’s the next level up from ‘surprised’? That’s what we were,” says Darren) and relieved that it all went so well. 

When moving day finally came in June, the experience was “awesome,” says Darren. “From the time the first truck showed up, it took only five hours for the whole thing to be bolted together.” A series of flatbed trucks, carrying a big crane and the container sections, trundled up the winding dirt road into the camp. “The pieces were loaded in reverse order and they’d lift each piece with the crane, spin it in the air, and drop it in place. It was a pretty neat operation.” Over the next month, workers finished the ceiling and wall seams where each modular steel unit joined, installed the commercial vinyl plank floor, and hooked up the electrical and plumbing. The Leishmans moved in for summer 2019. 

The overall vibe of the place? “It’s still camp, you can still wear your shoes inside,” says Darren. Pride of place goes to elements from the old place, including the armoured knight fireplace set, the wood-burning stove (the heat source for the building), Big Jim’s guitar, and the dining table and benches that were the basis of so many of Jett and Phoebe’s forts when they were kids. 

Today, the Leishmans spend almost every weekend from May to October at camp, and Phoebe and Jett have snowshoed in on the unplowed road during the winter months. They love that their camp is comfortable and easy to care for.  “We shouldn’t have to do any work to the outside for years and years and years,” says Darren.

Kellie and Phoebe, in particular, like the clean, contemporary lines and a feeling of spaciousness, compared to the former camp’s nooks and crannies, unpainted drywall, and a sleeping loft that was only accessible by exterior stairs (those are the ones that live on as the sauna deck stairs). Occasionally, the dark metal exterior makes a “pop” as it expands and settles on a hot summer day, but the insulation keeps the place comfortable and quiet year round. The whole family continues to cherish the camp experience like they always did—fishing for walleye, watching the waves and the sky, playing cards and board games, swimming, reading, and having a sauna.

For Darren and Kellie, the generational aspect of camp is especially poignant, remembering play forts and high school parties, bringing partners to visit for the first time and discovering you like hanging out with your parents as adults, and seeing Jett and Phoebe take the same steps. So what does the next generation think of Camp 2.0? “There’s nothing we would have done differently. It feels natural being out here, whether it was a trailer or a shack,” says Phoebe. “Now that we have this really nice camp, it just seems like it’s always been this way.”

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Featured Video