Philosophies on container living

People have questions when I tell them about my aspirations to live in 270 square feet of con-ex steel box. Beyond “simple” questions like, “How much will that cost to build?” and, “When will it be finished?” (I put “simple” in quotes back there because I have absolutely no idea how to answer either), there’s the considerably more thought-provoking question of, “Why?”

Oddly enough, I have some answers to the question concerning container living, more so than the other two, at least. Personally, I believe in minimalism as a design aesthetic and way of life. The efficiency therein appeals to me; I can’t say why, exactly. Maybe it’s the lack of waste. Maybe it’s the idea of, “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Maybe I’m a cheapskate. All I know is that living a life peppered with extended bouts of travel – from 2.5 months living out of a backpack on the Appalachian Trail to six months living out of a backpack from Lisbon to Tokyo – the possession of space and stuff appeals less to me than the freedom to move unencumbered and at will. Through travel, I’ve come to discover that experience is the true reward of downsizing one’s physical belongings.

There’s also the full-disclosure fact that, to some degree, profit potential drives this project. I would like my container home to serve as a sort of showroom for future clients of High Cube Industries, so that I may illustrate the form’s potential as well as my own ability in executing a plan. I have no delusions about Oklahomans clamoring to live in small spaces; rather, I believe there is a market for container-based structures as outlined on my About page. If I’m completely wrong on all counts, then at least I have a place to live while moving on to the next project.

Beyond my own muddled reasons for pursuing a container-based life, there are others who share my sentiments and vocalize them better than I ever could. The following are some of my favorite quotes about how a rejection of our traditional two-car garage, American dream home is actually an acceptance of a greater and far more rewarding truth:

…this isn’t about living without, we aren’t trying to sacrifice things here, we are trying to find the happy medium. When we understand our needs, we then can determine the form and function of our house.

We are exposed to a consumer culture that makes it hard for us to even separate these things. So this part is a gradual process that many of us still find ourselves grappling with. It has been taught to us from a young age that accumulation of things is better. The more stuff we have, the better we are. The psychology of these things cannot be understated; we need to dig deep into ourselves to examine our motivations.
– both quotes above from Ryan Mitchell, http://thetinylife.com/what-do-we-really-need/

In every area of nature, efficiency is the law of the land. Efficiency just makes sense. The only thing I know of that doesn’t abide by efficiency is the human ego.
– Jay Shafer, formerly of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, now of Four Lights

Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.
– Coco Chanel, interview in Harper’s Bazaar (1923).

It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry, L’Avion

It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.
– Diogenes of Sinope

Also, I like and agree with everything about this article by Leah Finnegan on downsizing. Do yourself a favor and read it!

In the end, whether living in a container or a mansion, just try to know who you are and follow your own path instead of some arbitrary notion of what the ideal living situation should be. Above all: Keep your self worth from being tied to possessions.

Initial container home designs

Back in February 2014, I initiated contact with an old acquaintance from my home town. Larry Lucas works as an architect for the Oklahoma Main Street Center but also freelances under his own Lucas Sustainable moniker. The latter focuses on “architecture, planning [and] preservation.” His sustainable ethos combined with our shared history made him a no-brainer choice for container home designs.

At this time, the deal was still closing on the vacant lot in southeast OKC, and unforeseen delays would extend our planning period even further, so we were afforded the luxury of being deliberate in our meetings and correspondence. We met to sketch ideas for the first time on Feb. 27, but the lot was not in my possession until mid-April. Even after closing, revisions and tweaks were still forthcoming (from both of us) well into December 2014.

Larry was very enthusiastic about the project and an invaluable resource when it came to demystifying residential development. Still, we had some difference in the beginning that had to be worked out before the real progress began. The idea I originally approached him with was for a single container, 40 feet long, very simple. The first sketches he came back with, however, featured two 20-foot containers arranged in various configurations.

okc container home
Larry came up with a T-shaped configuration as one of the initial designs for the container home. While interesting, I sought a much more basic design for my first-ever residential development.
container home in OKC
We also toyed with the idea of an L-shaped configuration, but this seemed overly complex to me as well. We initially assumed two 20-footers would ease delivery requirements, but this assumption turned out to be unfounded.

By the middle of March 2014, we had come to an understanding and agreement about what would work best for this first project. After reigning in Larry’s creative horsepower, the schematic pictured below remains quite similar to the final product that currently sits onsite.

OKC container home
Although some tweaks, additions, and subtractions would be made, the final design features one 40-footer set at an angle on the property to maximize sunlight.

As you can see above, there was initially a small utility shed between the driveway and container designed to house a tankless water heater and an HVAC unit. We eventually found solutions to eliminate the need for this shed. Also, there is a bedroom door pictured on the south side of the container, but we wound up moving this to the north side to improve flow from bedroom to bathroom. By the way: Everything in that schematic is to scale; notice how big the car looks compared to the “house”?

So that was how we arrived at our basic concept. Along the way and ever since, there have probably been a couple dozen different concepts and implementations we’ve considered, researched and then scrapped, and it’s interesting to go back and read through emails discussing grand additions like hydronic underfloor heating and a butterfly roof that would collect rain for graywater usage. In the end, these concepts were put on hold in favor of just getting the damn thing livable.

Tulsa follows OKC with container development

A friend of mine in Tulsa recently tipped me off to a container development proposed for the southeast corner of Third Street and Frankfort. As the article from the Tulsa World mentions, “Inspiration for The Boxyard came from similar shipping-container redevelopment projects in other cities.”

One needs look no further than Oklahoma City to hypothesize that some of that inspiration came from multi-container projects like OK SEA and The Showroom at Oklahoma Contemporary’s future downtown location, or even single-container retail space Perch’d.

OK SEA container development in OKC
The OK SEA container project in OKC’s Deep Deuce district, seen here June 12, will feature an artisanal corn dog/craft beer bar as well as shops and offices.
The Showroom container development in OKC
The Showroom features a vertical container in its design at NW 11th Street and Broadway Avenue in OKC. The site will eventually feature an adjacent $26 million arts campus and performance hall.
More container development in OKC (Perch'd)
Tucked between Broadway and the railroad tracks on NW 9th Street, Perch’d features a cheery exterior paint job and sells modern furnishings within.

So, as Tulsa plays catch up with Oklahoma City’s container-based projects, it would appear that this building trend has officially arrived in Oklahoma. Now here’s the part where I put on the economist hat from my previous life as an industry analyst in Los Angeles:

Although estimates of the container surplus vary, a surplus indeed exists (for reasons I mentioned earlier). Given the existing surplus in America, the increasing popularity of container-based building will likely encourage price-based competition among container vendors. With higher demand, container vendors will accept smaller per-unit profit margins to encourage higher volume sales. As such, I forecast container developments to increase in line with falling costs for raw building units.

Agree? Disagree? Wanna fight? Sound off in the comments below!

Site selection for the container home in OKC

Step back in time with me to February 2014. I was fully a month back in Oklahoma after six months of travel, chasing meager income by welding and selling metal roses. As my desire to pursue a career as a metal artist waned with the revenue from it, I became more serious about developing a container home in OKC.

The first step was to select a site. At the time, cost was the most determining factor, as the build site you can afford makes a strong candidate for any project. Next, location (location, location…) played a role in my decision, but, having owned a house in Oakland from 2009 to 2013, I wasn’t as averse to what many Oklahomans would refer to as “bad” neighborhoods. Sure, there are criteria like school ratings and crime stats, but I don’t have children, and I’ve lived in high-crime areas much worse than what’s generally considered “bad” in OKC. For me, location was more about access to things I like (bars, mainly) and proximity to my local friends.

In the end, I chose a location in southeast OKC, near the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Shields Avenue. It was very affordable, tucked away on a dead-end street near some railroad tracks. The site actually met several LEED qualifications, and LEED certification interested me in the beginning (more on that some other time…).

The train doesn’t pass QUITE as often as compared to Elwood’s apartment, but…

The next step was to contact an old friend from Boy Scouts who had since become an architect and was, lo and behold, living in OKC! TO BE CONTINUED!

Mind the clickbait!

I mention in my previous post that there’re articles making fantastic claims about the cost of container development. My friend recently tipped me off to a link local radio personality Ferris O-Brien posted Wednesday on Facebook, which is as follows:

Yes, SOME containers cost $2,000, but would you really want to make them the basis of your project? The price for a more suitable unit, one that requires little if any additional welding or painting to make it job-ready, is more like $5,000, plus delivery, taxes, etc.
Yes, SOME containers cost $2,000, but would you really want to make them the basis of your project? The price for a more suitable unit, one that requires little if any additional welding or painting to make it job-ready, one that doesn’t have holes in it or rust or acid spilled on a floor that has to be replaced, is more like $5,000, plus delivery fees, taxes, site prep, etc.

Now, this article has been shared more than 340,000 times, according to the social media counters at the time of this post. The problem this creates is a false sense of affordability in the mind of the would-be owner. Make no mistake: The multi-unit homes in some of those pictures are million-dollar homes.

Posts like this are clickbait, meaning the headlines use half-truths and exaggeration to distort the truth into something we can’t resist clicking on because it sounds so fantastic. Please understand I don’t fault Mr. O’Brien for sharing this on his wall. It’s quite coincidental that I saw this on his wall and not somewhere else (although I have seen most of those images in the article). Posts like this seem fun and interesting, but ultimately they prey on our aspirations and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt. I once read an article where a professional hacker put it like this: Credibility online doesn’t start at zero, it starts at negative 40.

Still, container-based structures do offer an alluring alternative to traditional building in terms of reduced lead times, durability, weather resistance, portability and sustainability. If one had the right arsenal of tools, heavy machinery, know-how and talent, then one could certainly leverage the RELATIVE affordability of used containers into a real cost-saving venture. Barring those conditions, High Cube Industries exists to bring the supply chains, skilled craftspeople, machinery operators, and knowledge base together for those seeking container development based in reality.

Strengths, weaknesses, and lemonade

Wikipedia’s article on container architecture, which is pretty good as far as Wiki articles go, lists several strengths and weaknesses for these structures. Some of the perceived weaknesses, like building permits, haven’t been an issue for me with the City of OKC, but something like humidity and the extreme highs and lows of our state’s weather could certainly challenge the success of the finalized product. Likewise, some of the strengths, such as durability, are indisputable when compared to lumber-based homes, while others, like labor and (especially) expense, remain subject to the complexity of an individual project.

In my case, the economic benefits of container development versus more traditional means remain to be seen, but I would caution that the articles proclaiming fantastic results on a shoestring budget likely omit vital components like land costs, permit fees, taxes, etc.

The entry concludes with a note about how the global economy’s shifting tides left US shores with a glut of unused containers. As manufacturing has moved overseas during the past decade, containers have kept arriving in US ports with diminishing rates of return. With container architecture, we can seize an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade while reaping the benefits of increased efficiency. USA! USA! USA!

It all started when…

I was travelling abroad during 2013 and noticed how much smaller the accommodations became the further east one goes. It struck me that pretty much the majority of the world lives in spaces Americans (and especially Oklahomans) would call “small.”

About the same time as those travels, I began to notice an increasing number of articles online about tiny homes. Through research on those I discovered container architecture. As my experiences in small spaces abroad mingled with the knowledge of this trend back home, the creation of an efficient, small, container-based dwelling began to really interest me.

So, since March 2014, I’ve been developing my own container home in Oklahoma City. Eventually, I hope to develop container-based projects for others as a business. At the very least, this blog aims to chronicle that process. At the most, it may offer an online platform for discussing container architecture and sustainable housing issues in general.

This is one of the container images that started it all. It was built in San Antonio, as a guest house behind an existing home. For more information: http://money.cnn.com/gallery/real_estate/2014/09/05/shipping-container-homes/5.html
This is one of the first container projects that inspired me, built in San Antonio as a guest house behind an existing home. Source: http://money.cnn.com/gallery/real_estate/2014/09/05/shipping-container-homes/5.html