As the container home concept began percolating in my brain, I considered potential uses for sheltering the homeless and otherwise providing low-cost, high-quality housing for those who could really use it. As it turns out, there are a couple of significant barriers to doing this, mainly cost, organizational and bureaucratic oversight, and the thinly veiled greed of outside collaborators.
It costs to control the climate
As Richard McKown, a key developer in the OK SEA container development in OKC’s Deep Deuce, recently said in Territory Magazine, containers are actually very cost-INEFFECTIVE versus traditional building, at least during the construction phase. (Unfortunately, I can’t link or quote him because Territory [inexplicably] doesn’t post articles online, and I didn’t memorize the quote when I read it in print.) Containers are basically specialized building materials, and they require specialized machinery (like cranes) and specialized trades (like welding) to erect as habitable buildings. Instead of cost effectiveness, the key benefits actually lie in their modularity, which potentially allows for cost-effective mass production in a fabrication shop offsite; and durability, providing a more stable and permanent structure versus mobile homes and temporary shelters.
Still, it’s the costs of insulating and climate controlling a container that make low-income housing difficult in erratic and extreme climates like Oklahoma’s. In more stable climates, like the tropics where it’s always warm, sparsely insulated containers as a low-income solution make more sense, but there should still be SOME insulation, some kind of thermal envelope that reduces energy use and, subsequently, costs. Which brings us to two examples of failed container-based housing developments.
St. Petersbug, Florida
In 2006, nonprofit agency St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, industrial services company Tampa Armature Works, and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes planned to develop two termite- and hurricane-resistant homes for the low-income neighborhood of Bartlett Park. Home Depot’s charitable foundation pitched in $185k, and the government’s NeighborWorks America also provided funds. Designed for “first-time home buyers with total household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income,” the 1,800 square-foot homes would resemble traditional houses in the block, as A-frame trusses would be added to form pitched roofs, and the corrugated steel exteriors of each container would be replaced with 16-gauge sheet metal, which was then sprayed white. Home improvement guru Bob Vila visited the project and filmed five episodes about it.
It sounded like a win-win program, but, even four years later, only one of the homes got built, while the other was demolished before completion and a traditional home erected in its stead. The completed home was purchased from St. Pete’s NHS for $170k in 2006, but comparable houses were going for $106k in 2010, so there goes the idea of affordability for that project. Plus, NHS ended up owing TAW $100k and subsequently went bankrupt.
“Financially, it just never made sense,” said Thomas de Yampert, the city’s manager of housing and community development. “But we were trying to do something to support one of our nonprofit agencies, and to see what we could get done.”
What went wrong
Besides being financially insolvent, the St. Petersburg container development illustrates some of the perils of early technological adoption and the machinations of greed behind seemingly philanthropic pursuits. First, that project got going in 2005, the same year Katrina wracked the entire Gulf Coast. Containers seemed like (and are!) a good defense against strong winds and flying debris, but the impetus to build a hurricane-proof house was derailed by efforts to make it look like any other normal house in Bartlett Park. By removing the CorTen steel exterior and replacing it with sheet metal, builders were downgrading the structural integrity of the original container. Further, the addition of wooden trusses to create a pitched roof and the addition of shingles to that roof represented a step backward into traditional building on a project that was begging for innovation to lead the way. Last, the builders SEEMED like they were embracing innovation when, instead of using any type of insulation AT ALL, they opted to merely coat the sheet-metal exterior of the house with Super Therm, a ceramic-based paint called that SUPPOSEDLY has an R-value (measure of insulating power) of 19 (equivalent to six inches of fiberglass). Spoiler: IT DOESN’T. It’s basically snake oil, and builders were merely cutting corners. (Btw, where were you on that one, Vila?! Oh right, you have a long history of putting your bearded shill before the prosperity of your fan base.)
Given Vila’s blessing on such a gross construction oversight, it becomes clear that the builders in charge of the project were essentially just milking a cash cow. The milk came from the city’s loan to NHS, the donation from Home Depot (*cough* corporate tax write off *cough*) and the effete bureaucracy of NeighborWorks America, which Bloomberg authors recently slammed as “… a house in disorder—with sweetheart contracts, document fudging and unexplained departures of top officials.”. TAW, which supplied the container frames and did the fabrication for the openings, were just piggybacking on some “free” money, hence their desire to lower labor and materials costs through the use of Super Therm and nothing else. If the desire is to create an affordable dwelling for low-income residents, then the operating costs of that residence be lowered through the creation of a highly efficient thermal envelope that reduces energy use throughout the dwelling’s lifetime.
Fast forward to 2013 and jump across the pond to jolly ol’ England. Richardson’s Yard, a 36-container, five-story apartment complex featuring partial solar power, green roofs and a food-growing initiative, opens for people “at risk of homelessness” in December of that year. The project cost about $1.44M and was completed by QED Property, WCEC Architecture, and the Brighton Housing Trust. In an independent report, the residents generally approved of their living quarters, but the number-one complaint was inadequate insulation during winter months, which in turn raised heating costs.
A reporter for Vice spent a night in the compound to investigate tenant conditions and sentiment in person. Based on the fact that residents there still must pay rent (often subsidized by the BHA), the fact that the compound’s lease expires in 2019, and documents alluding to further development of the otherwise blighted area, his take-away included the cynical observation that Richardson’s Yard represented, “another formula for wealth extraction.”
The chief of Brighton Housing Trust, Andy Winter, responded to the article in a rather transparent and measured fashion, admitting that heating issues were a failure on their part but asserting that profit from the endeavor would be minimal if realized at all. To his defense, I’ve noticed most Vice writers lack proper journalistic training, and many of their articles lack facts and proper research as a result.
People still need homes
At the end of it all, we still have people right here in Oklahoma that could benefit from a well done, properly funded container compound with independent oversight. Richardson’s Yard illustrates the lessons we can learn from St. Petersburg’s colossal failure: Let container homes look like containers, beware the influx of “free” money from would-be do-gooders, and lock in costs to a fixed budget that can’t be exceeded without severe penalties for third-party contractors. Further, we learn from Richardson’s yard that not all such charitable initiatives are permanent, and companies usually in the business of turning profit can’t be expected to suddenly give away their products for free.
I remain faithful that a charitable, philanthropy-based container development could be a win-win right here in Oklahoma City or the state at large. Part of this confidence stems from the state’s embrace of the form and my own personal learning process of how to do the dwellings the right way. Although my budget has been blown several times over and mistakes have been made during the creation of my own container home, I have always been ready to accept error as part of a learning process. Hopefully, the things I learn might one day be applied toward a greater good in the form of some sort of charity-based housing development.