The Acres – High Shore – Container Living
by Janet Davies
Alison Lawtey had an imaginative plan to convert shipping containers into guest accommodations and plant them in all their contemporary industrial glory in an unspoiled rural paradise somewhere. She wanted a B&B with a stylish twist. After a roller coaster ride of applications, plan changes, obstacles, permissions, she has done it. The Acres at High Shore is open for business. Here’s what she told us.
“My story is a familiar one, I came from Toronto to build a new life here. I know I pushed the boundaries of what you can do on a small rural property, and I’ve learned a lot on the way, but all in all it’s been a very positive experience. Especially getting my permits! That was a big celebration.”
Running a B&B was not a lifelong dream for Alison, but when her position in marketing for a global financial institution was ‘restructured’ she opted to leave the corporate world. “I had a good idea and then I found a perfect place to make it happen: Prince Edward County” she says. “Early on, I reached out to the Community Development Department who suggested I needed to draw up a rough business plan before committing to any properties.” She also tried to engage the Planning Department, but discovered they couldn’t tell her what was and was not allowed on a property without knowing – the property.
She finished her business plan in late 2016 and headed to The County in January 2017 to begin looking for the perfect place. The first day out with a real estate agent, in freezing rain, she found it. The property in Sophasburgh ticked all the boxes, had an old farmhouse and the bonus of a sturdy old barn. “Sophiasburgh felt very central,” she says. “It had easy access to amenities, major cities and the 401 which was good for me as a single female and would be good for future guests. My friends laugh when I say ‘it’s about 15 minutes to everything’, but it mostly is! I’ve done the bulls-eye circle and major points like Wellington, Picton, Bloomfield and the 401 are 15 minutes away. Places like Sandbanks, Milford and Waupoos are a little further, but the drives are so beautiful it doesn’t matter.”
Her 14 acres are long and narrow and were very overgrown when she purchased the land. She still hasn’t seen the very back of her property, but there’s a good reason for that. “Most of it is conservation wetlands, which is wonderful, a lot of nature and a lot of birds,” she says. “I’m going to re-cut the old walking paths, and in Spring go gangbusters on the gardens.” With all her foundations in place, permissions and permits and those ‘guest containers,’ she can now think about aesthetics. She did a kitchen reno herself in the house and made a few tweaks, now she’s ready to sow wildflowers and plant more trees, perhaps a small apple orchard. She’s proud that not a single tree was felled in preparing the land for its new life.
HOW THE PLAN CHANGED
Alison’s original idea was for guests to sleep in three converted containers dotted around the back field, and breakfast to be served in the main house. Unfortunately, multiple dwellings are not permitted on rural zoning, just one secondary suite detached from the house. “Because I don’t front directly on water (Shore Land designation), the usual tourist cabin approach was not permitted. It was a disappointment, but I understand red tape. I come from the corporate world! The legalese and restrictions and hoops you jump through are there to protect the company and its clients. In the case of The County, red tape avoids people building things that stick out like a sore thumb or are not acceptable to the neighbors and the community.” It was a blow, but her ideas have always been evolving. At one point she thought of using yurts or building tiny homes, before the idea of repurposing sturdy shipping containers caught her imagination.
Working with Planning to comply with zoning, the three separate ‘guest containers’ had to present as a single unit. Ironically, it took buying a fourth container to achieve that. It became a common space with a kitchenette, where breakfast is served. Adding it helped unite the individual spaces into one dwelling, together with barn doors between units that made a continuous wall, common decking and a pergola-like roof. This conformed with the intent of a singular detached secondary dwelling with County Planners. As well as winning her planning permission, the added wood elements softened the industrial metal, creating the contemporary-rustic style Prince Edward County is becoming known for.
Each unit has a sleeping space and a shower, sink and toilet in what Alison enthuses is an excellent design. “When I faced the challenge of designing something that qualified as a single dwelling using three separate units, I knew I had to hire a good architect. We came up with the pinwheel layout, with the containers end-to-end in a square, that you can see clearly in the great photographs PEC Aerial took.” Her architect had other fantastic ideas, but they were expensive, and after the unexpected extra cost of decking, roof and a fourth container, Alison wisely chose to keep things simple, and it works.
After a frustrating online search that threw up lots of container concepts but not a single seller that actually built with containers, she was lucky to stumble upon Storstac in Etobicoke quite by chance driving by their facility. The company sells and modifies shipping containers. “They could have done the whole job for me,” she says. “But having to unite them the way we did, it was more economical to do everything possible on-site in The County.” The containers arrived in June 2018, just big steel shells with windows and doors cut out and framed in steel, ready for local contractors to finish them. The windows are huge and can open. “You honestly feel as if you are outdoors,” she says. “You can wake up and appreciate the beauty of nature all around you, or look at the stars from the comfort of your bed.”
THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION: Is it cheaper to re-purpose a container than build from scratch? Alison laughs. “Not in my case. You can buy a container for $1,000, but be warned – older containers can become bio-hazards (just imagine containers being shipped all around the world with unknown products for years is not something you want to sleep in). I chose to spend more for Single Use containers that make one trip from somewhere like Asia, deliver their goods and are sold. If you’re just using them for storage that’s one thing, but if you plan to live in them and breathe the air in them, go for single use.” Alison insulated with spray foam and rejected a simple cement slab foundation in favour of screw or helical piles that raised the containers two or three feet off the ground. “That gave the room for the infrastructure of the deck and connections for the well, septic, electric and gas. I did look at specially engineered concrete pads, but that would have cost double.”
CONFORMING TO CODE:
Alison’s project was far from a traditional build, but it was inspected as rigorously, if not more so. Fortunately, the building inspectors had her official plans to refer to which had been approved by The County. But even elements that did not need to conform to code, like the barn doors and pergola roof, came under close scrutiny as these were the elements that made her guest accommodation that single dwelling her zoning demands.
THE CONTRACTOR AND THE BARN
Dave Turnbull of Structural Technology was her general contractor, recommended by the previous owners, and Alison says he’s worth every penny. “Dave has great connections to local trades which is invaluable. It can be tough to get trades with all the development going on right now. I swear if I was to do it all over again, I’d be a carpenter or electrician in The County!” Dave will be back onsite soon, because Alison has big plans for the barn. “I’ve done a lot of event planning. I know a great venue when I see it. There are plenty of good spaces in The County for big events and I prefer to do smaller things. Harvest dinners, intimate weddings, maybe just the rehearsal dinner or the day after wedding brunch. I want to make regular use of the barn, too. Maybe yoga in the loft, or workshops. I have health practitioner friends who could stay with me in the house and bring six guests, if they didn’t mind sharing a bed!” Alison knows noise is the biggest concern with hospitality operations. “I respect my neighbours and would never want to inconvenience them. It’s important for me to live in peace, and, besides, one of the biggest attractions of this property is the peace and quiet,” she pauses. “And stargazing! That’s my favourite.”
ADVICE & FUTURE PLANS
Alison knew her project would be costly but she says it’s worth it. “Sophiasburgh was the perfect place for me. Now I’m promoting it to everyone as the “Sweet Spot of The County”, she laughs. “I joined the Sophiasburgh Recreation Committee. I want to help put this area on the radar. It’s under-developed and unique and beautiful to drive and explore. There are all sorts of entrepreneurs here.” Alison wants to contribute to her community, and lending her marketing expertise is one way to do it. “I currently help my neighbour who manages the PEC Barn Quilt Trail by updating her website, and I’m happy to volunteer for things. When I’m set up and settled and have made the transition from building to hosting, I may do some marketing consulting. That will fit well with running The Acres, because local businesses – and me – will all be busy in the high season and then ready to work on marketing in the slow times.” Smart, positive, flexible. Alison will do just fine in The County.
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.