This article was first published in the Interiors 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
An imaginative couple turns a series of shipping containers into a home that’s at once industrial and inviting, envisioning it as a welcoming space for family, friends, and anybody looking to get away from it all
By MELANIE SCOTT
Photos by CHRISTIAN LALONDE – PHOTOLUXSTUDIO.COM
The vista from the road leading to Kirk Finken and Natalie Fraser’s Luskville-area house is one of those breathtaking scenes that could have been painted by famed British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner — the countryside, rich with green, set against a moody, uncertain sky that threatens to burst. Without much warning, a farmhouse, which has seen better days, appears on the right. But it’s not the farmhouse that Kirk and Natalie occupy: they live in the building a bit further back from the road.
Created from four shipping containers (once used to transport produce from the Bahamas) that the couple purchased from the Port of Montreal, the 2,300-square-foot structure doesn’t appear, at first glance, to be much different from many custom-designed houses. Once inside, though, the skeleton of the house quickly becomes apparent: some of the ceilings — the floors of containers flipped upside down — are hardwood, while a wall inside one closet has serial numbers stuck to its surface.
Though Kirk purchased the property in 2007, they did not start building until 2013. In the interim, Kirk did some designing, using 3-D software, and the couple created a maquette. They played around with foam shapes and made numerous drawings, sketching ideas as they came to them. What eventually emerged was a concept that would make intelligent use of the strength and shape of the rectangular steel boxes that occupy shipping ports the world over.
Theirs is a blended family (both Kirk and Natalie have children from previous relationships), so they also kept in mind that they were creating a unique space where their kids could come and go in an environment that overlooks that Turneresque landscape. “I’m obsessed with the idea that a space affects your ideas and your mind,” says Kirk. “Our houses are an extension of our souls.”
Before tackling the actual construction, Kirk and Natalie needed a mortgage, as well as a building permit. And the concept of a house made with steel containers isn’t everyone’s idea of a good investment. “We had a contractor who had some courage,” says Kirk, “and the municipality had courage, and the bank that approved us had courage.” Adds Natalie: “We went to seven branches of the same bank and found one that would make this happen.”
Having already built a straw bale house in Aylmer, Kirk was no stranger to the concept of using alternative materials. Plenty of builders are jumping onto the “green building” bandwagon, but he isn’t much interested in the current buzz that’s feeding the dialogue. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “I just want to do it.” That ability to get on with it is evident in the progress the couple has made since the concrete slab on which the house sits was poured in 2013.
They used the nearby farmhouse as a temporary home from which to supervise the construction process. Once the containers were delivered, they were joined together with the help of local contractors, including one with a background in welding. The building began to take shape. Individual rooms emerged — some are the exact size and shape of the containers, while others were created by slicing through the steel walls. The overall result is a house with an atrium at its centre — a staircase leads to a kind of catwalk that overlooks the open living area below.
Off this are five bedrooms, including an idyllic private space for Kirk and Natalie that, like much of the house, looks over the natural beauty outside. Lighting casts shadows through the steel-and-wire banister onto a massive white wall. The effect is one of being in a city at night. This was intentional, says Natalie, and you would almost think you were looking at a painting.
The containers aren’t the only previously owned components that went into the building. Aged wooden walls that form a pantry off the kitchen were rescued from another house, while the pantry door came from a nearby farmhouse. A re-enamelled claw-foot tub in the main bathroom was removed from “some guy’s basement in the Glebe,” says Kirk, adding that scouring garage sales resulted in plenty of finds. The kitchen, especially, is an eye-catcher: it came from a Zellers’ luncheonette and was purchased at a barn sale in Aylmer. The temptation is to sit down at the counter and order a burger and fries.
Everything in this house spells efficiency. Being somewhat restricted by the dimensions of the containers encourages inventive use of space. Washbasins in the bathrooms are designed for small spaces (although accommodation has been made for a giant soaker tub in the master bathroom), and closets are minimal, reflecting the couple’s notion that accumulation leads to clutter.
The exterior of the house, meanwhile, reflects a penchant for simplicity — it’s faced with pine board and batten, and the couple will allow the surface to age with the seasons. Under this is sprayed foam insulation; the roof is finished with polyresin membrane to fend off the elements.
There’s still much to accomplish: Kirk and Natalie intend to build separate structures on the property in order to offer all kinds of activities to visitors. They plan to set up a recording studio and provide acting and singing lessons (Natalie is a voice teacher as well as a yoga instructor; she is already hosting yoga classes in the house). This will mean investing in more containers and refashioning them into multi-use spaces and studios. Also in the works is a plan to go off-grid — eventually wind and solar power will keep things humming. The farmhouse will be removed, but its foundation will be repurposed into a “living pool,” as Kirk describes it, rife with aquatic flora and fauna.
Behind the house is a mountain that plays backdrop to a horse pasture. Walking trails go for miles; Kirk and Natalie hike there often and realize that the outdoor space can also contribute to a get-away-from-it-all experience when it comes time to start welcoming visitors.
The discussion turns to the fact that how we live and work is changing dramatically: technology offers us the freedom to break free from the confines of the nine-to-five tradition, but it also shackles us. We’re losing the ability to communicate one-on-one, in person, and are tied to our electronic gadgets. “We want to be part of building a community,” says Natalie, who sees her home as being a place of tranquility. “It will be the perfect place for healing.”