Like many curious children, Paul Rathnam’s kids love to play with cardboard boxes, building creative structures out of the empty packaging. Rathnam sees a parallel between their recreation and what he does for a living: converting shipping containers into swimming pools. “They’re basically the world’s cardboard boxes,” he says. “They take all of our cargo around the world, safely. And, they’re reusable.”
Since 2017, Vancouver-based Rathnam has been transforming shipping containers into backyard pools across Canada and the U.S. It’s a way to reuse containers that are often transported overseas just once and then go to waste—while at the same time providing comfort for home-bound families who may be using their backyards more often during the pandemic. The portable pools are relatively easy and efficient to build and install, and can be modified with some luxurious features.
The idea began after a few trips to Palm Springs, California, the Rathnam family’s favored vacation spot. “We’d always tick the box of having a pool,” he says. “I thought, Here we are going on vacation to experience something we could probably have at home.” At that time, Rathnam, who’d been in the building and renovating profession for many years, was already converting shipping containers into usable spaces, primarily office units. But that business, ModPro, mainly consisted of one-off conversions. It wasn’t sustainable without a more specific product.
Once Rathnam decided to focus on pools, he created Modpools. He’d buy containers that were doing a single trip across the Pacific, carrying goods like cellphones, computers, and clothes from China to North America. Many times, those containers don’t go back, and if they do, they travel thousands of miles completely empty. “North America doesn’t really have much to send China,” he says, save some items like soybeans and semiconductors; this is a result of the famed U.S.-China trade deficit. China doesn’t want its containers back, either, so most that don’t go back often end up getting recycled (some are repurposed into offices, classrooms, and even homes). In some cases, they’re just left to rust. “Turning them into something that you can use for 30 years on your property [is] probably the best form of recycling we can do,” Rathnam says.
Modpools specifically purchases single-use containers so that they’re as dent-free and clean as possible; Rathnam is fighting a stigma of his pools being thought of as basically garbage cans. “The uphill battle with containers is that it looks like a dumpster,” he says. It would have been a harder sell a decade or two ago, he notes, but people are now more open-minded, both to the concept of reusing and to embracing new designs for small spaces.
The shipping container pools are constructed using a modular approach: the 20-by-8-foot or 40-by-8-foot containers are cut down as needed to the customized shape and size of a particular garden space; they can also be widened by welding on some leftover steel. All of this happens in Modpools’ factory about an hour east of Vancouver, so, unlike traditional home pools, construction doesn’t become an on-site burden for families. The pools can then be installed swiftly—usually within a day—in-ground, above ground, or partially above ground. The company has designed infinity pools and added window features in the sides of the containers so onlookers can see into the bottom. A popular option is the pool-hot tub combination, allowing parents to swim with children in the day, and lounge with bubbles at night.
Container sourcing is less stable now for Rathnam than it used to be. Pandemic shopping habits are causing somewhat of a shipping container shortage due to increased demand for goods. Or, rather, it’s a “container imbalance” of boxes piling up on American shores while ports struggle to unload goods in time for ships to sail back with their empty containers on board. Rathnam says he can no longer rely on brokers in Vancouver as sources for containers in case his stocks run low; rather, he must buy hundreds in advance.
Though the pandemic has affected shipping container supply, it’s helped Rathnam’s business have its biggest growth year yet. There are about 800 Modpools installed in North America, from Hawaii to Long Island, and around 150 in the works in the factory, which has recently increased its capacity. Because of reduced travel and socializing in public, people are spending more time at home—and, like Rathnam, may want their own backyard to feel like a Palm Springs getaway. “I think people are appreciating more what they have,” he says.