Container home couchsurfing: Culture comes to you

I’ve been an active member of the community since 2009. The site enables travelers to find hosts around the world who are willing to open up their homes and offer up their hospitality. It’s like AirBnB but free of charge and more social, in that the homeowners/primary residents usually interact with their guests.

It appeals to those who, like myself, prefer to visit a city less like a tourist and more like a local. Further, because not everyone is comfortable letting complete strangers into their homes as overnight guests, the people I’ve hosted and stayed with through CS are usually like-minded, easy-going folks who become fast friends.

It’s because of these built-in character traits among CSers that it’s easy to feel a sense of community with guests and hosts. Just by virtue of being a member of the site, it’s likely you already have quite a bit in common with those you encounter through it. Birds of a bohemian feather…

Over the years, I’ve probably hosted about 100 people from various apartments and houses I’ve lived in, mainly in Oakland and L.A. Since moving into the container last year, I’ve hosted CSers on about 18 occasions. Who knew OKC was such a touristy destination for international travelers? I’ve had guests from Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Eritrea, Spain, the U.K., Quebec, Nashville, NYC and L.A. Some were pretty crunchy hippy types hitchhiking across the U.S.; others were on road trips across Route 66; and some were just in town for work-related stuff or headed West to relocate.

But how?

“But Josh, you live in a 270-square foot box that’s only 7’8″ or so at its widest interior width. How can you host strangers, sometimes three at a time, in such a small space? How long do they stay? Doesn’t it get cramped?”

Good questions! My CS profile limits the number of guests to three at a time, and that’s the max that I’ve hosted in the container. Usually, surfers only stay for the night and leave the next morning, although one has stayed for a week recently.

Yes, it does get kinda cramped at times, and not everyone is capable of keeping their things quarantined into an orderly mess, which can complicate moving about the space (and drive me crazy). I’ve tried to learn from each surfer what works and what doesn’t in this space. It helps that hosting surfers has been something of a hobby of mine for so long.

CS considerations from early on to present

Even when designing the layout of the container and considering furnishings, the ability to host travelers was a consideration. For example, I knew I would want to create two completely private spaces, one for myself and one for guests, plus I would want bathroom doors that locked (to spare everyone some potential embarrassment/awkwardness). I also knew I would want some kind of spare bed, so, taking a cue from the name of the site, the plan was always to have a couch that could convert into a bed and a living room that could accommodate both configurations.

container home couchsurfing
Couch bed.
In the living room, I use an old footlocker as a coffee table. This footlocker actually does three things:

  1. It’s a coffee table.
  2. It stores bedding for the fold-out couch.
  3. It can store surfer luggage during their stay while the bedding is on the hide-a-bed.

There’s also an unused kitchen cabinet that can be conscripted as a makeshift locker. As long as we keep the floor clear, the space remains navigable, and my mind remains free from clutter-related stresses.

What’s in it for me?

While it’s nice to save some money while traveling and stay someplace for free, CS is also (and more importantly) about sharing cultures and exchanging perspectives. Guests are generally very gracious and willing to cook, buy a drink or two, practice languages or otherwise contribute in a positive way in return for even just a night’s stay.  Just look at the maple syrup and caramel a Canadian recently sent me by way of saying thanks:

Plus, I like hosting. I like being an ambassador for OKC and making recommendations for what I consider the best things to do, see and eat. Sometimes I personally give the guests a tour of the town; other times I’m busy, and they do their own thing. If we’re both at home, though, I find it a welcome change of pace to have interesting conversations with a temporary roommate.

There’s also the possibility that a host, while traveling, would be able to stay with someone they’ve hosted before. While this kind of reciprocity isn’t expected and certainly not required, I have stayed with prior guests in Poland and Germany and met up with prior guests in Holland. So, while it’s a free platform, the fringe benefits of networking help create value for everyone. At the very least, for times when I’m unable to travel, I can let the world come to me, one guest at a time.

Give it a whirl!

For those who travel frequently (and would like to travel frequently if only it weren’t so expensive), I highly recommend joining CS before your next trip. Even if you’re not sold on the idea of staying at a stranger’s home or hosting them, it can be a great way to find event listings in a new city, meet up with locals and/or other travelers, find rides to share or simply get recommendations. Because it’s free to join, you have nothing to lose. In return, you may just make some really good friends and have the kinds of experiences money can’t buy.

Squirrel Park container development going up in OKC

The Squirrel Park container development is making fast inroads in northwest OKC. Located in the Asian District on the southeast side of the intersection of 32nd and Classen, the development consists exclusively of container structures and was designed by the same Londdon-based firm that created the OKC SEA complex near Deep Deuce. Eventually, an artist’s rendering of the project dictates that it will look something like this:

Squirrel ParkFrom an archived post on from August 2015 (presumably made by Pete Schaffer, the developer):

Developer Peter Schaffer received approval yesterday from the Planning Commission to move forward with the project, which will feature four unique homes. The units at Squirrel Park will initially be for lease with the possibility of being sold as condominiums later.

The units will span two lots on the south side of NW 32nd just east of Classen and represents more urban infill where housing demand has surged in recent years.

The architect is AHMM of London, the same group that designed the recently-completed OKSea project, which was also formed out of containers.

AHMM continues to make an impact on urban Oklahoma City, having already designed Level, Mosaic, The Plow, Duncan Bindery, the American Energy Partners fitness center and the recently announced Bob Moore Headquarters.

Here’s a gallery of more images from that same archived post:

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Looks like it’s going to be a really sharp development. Given that permits were issued in 2015 and construction seems to be only about a month down the road, I feel a lot less bad about the fact that my single-unit home took two years to build from concept to move in.

HCI: Available for giving container home presentations

So, since founding this blog and moving into my high cube, I’ve subsequently been fortunate enough to have various groups within the Oklahoma City metro ask me to give some presentations on container homes — specifically MY container home, of course.

Real estate appraiser’s group

In September 2017, I spoke at a meeting of the Appraisal Institute’s Great Plains chapter. Kelly Hogan with Scope Property Valuation Specialists had heard of me by chance through a mutual friend, and she was needing to provide some kind of presentation for the Great Plains chapter’s monthly meeting.

There were about 30 to 40 people in attendance, all of them hyper-aware of the local real estate market. Their questions were largely related to the more technical side of property ownership, zoning and taxes, but they also had more personal curiosities about design choices and the practicality of living in 270 square feet.

Main takeaway: Because there’s no loan classification for container homes yet, a significant amount of difficulty exists in getting a container home loan, either for buying or borrowing against an existing one or borrowing in order to build a new one. Personally, Bank of America (my bank since 2008) denied my application for a loan (although I imagine some kind of self-financing could be arranged in the event I sell my unit). At the same time, there are a few large-scale container projects (to be discussed in a future post), that seem to indicate that if your project is big enough (or you know the right people) one can secure a loan for these types of unique structures.

Earth Rebirth: Environmental consultants and sustainability collective

Speaking to members of the Earth Rebirth environmental collective Oct. 5, 2016, in Norman, OK. (Photo by Deon Osborne)

The Earth Rebirth organization based out of Norman, Oklahoma, contacted me in August about presenting to their group in early October. Even though the appraiser’s chapter turned out to be a good meeting with an engaged and curious audience, this was the type of organization more in line with what I thought constituted the “container home market,” because the ideals of Earth Rebirth (sustainability, environmentalism, recycling, etc.) are reflected in the container home itself.

There were somewhere between a dozen and 20 people in attendance during the course of the evening’s talk, and many were already familiar with container homes and other tiny living solutions, having done their own research already and currently seeking to downsize their living situations.

Main takeaway: People who are sympathetic to the environmental and sustainable aspects of container developments are very enthusiastic about the concept but largely lack the funds to start their own projects. (See lack of loan availability above.) OKC group/Tiny House Collective Oklahoma

A man by the name of John Stuart happened to attend the Earth Rebirth session, and he subsequently invited me to speak to members of his group(s) shortly thereafter. (OKC minimalists can be found here, while the local tiny house collective exists online here.)

A much more modestly sized group of like-minded individuals gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon in the sanctuary of City Pres church in OKC, which will host meetings for free. Much like the environmentalists from the previous meeting, this group consisted largely of people who had already gone down the online rabbit hole of container home research, and one had even purchased a vacant lot in northeast OKC with the sole purpose of container development.

Main takeaway: Again, the desire is there, but the money remains and issue, and I emphasized that there’s no real money to be saved on the front end of building a container home unless you have the tools and are able to do a significant amount of the cutting and welding yourself. Further, for building within city limits, obtaining permits and hiring out inspectors can add up to a prohibitive cost for most people.

Would you like me to present to your group?

I hope this gives you an idea about what kinds of groups I’m available to speak with. Of course, I’d gladly talk the ears off anyone who will listen. Currently my presentation appearances are performed gratis, but secure your place early before demand rises high enough for me to start charging! 😉

Please feel free to email me for availability and more info:

Wheeler District: Will container homes dot the neighborhood?

Have you been to the new Ferris wheel in OKC? It’s actually an old Ferris wheel, imported from its original home on the Santa Monica pier in greater Los Angeles. It currently stands as a symbol of progress for ongoing development in OKC’s Wheeler District.

Located on the south side of the Oklahoma River, which roughly divides the city’s north and south sides, the Ferris wheel represents the northernmost point of what will eventually become a “mixed-use neighborhood development on the grounds of the former Downtown Airpark.”

From a NewsOK story interviewing developer Blair Humphries about the project:

Blair Humphreys said that he is looking at renovating the terminal building into a community hub (with more details to be revealed at a later time) and building a first phase of housing that will sell at an average price of $250,000 to $350,000. The zoning application also includes plans for what Humphreys calls “tiny homes” that might attract young couples and families just starting out.

Although I’ve made the case before that container home are not tiny homes per se, I did reach out to the Wheeler development crew to offer the services of High Cube Industries. Lo’ and behold they actually responded, albeit to say, in part, that other people had already contacted them about container homes potentially filling their tiny home allocations, but it was better than nothing. Additionally, they said those types of additions wouldn’t even begin until 2018, most likely, and maybe even later (and, in my mind, maybe not at all).

Containers already in use at Wheeler (kinda…)

Wheler District
The eastern-facing side of four containers near the ticket booth/concession stand for the Ferris wheel. (Josh McBee)

At any rate, I recently visited the area to check out the Ferris wheel. Didn’t go for a spin, but I did enjoy a bottled water in the shade of four 40-foot containers that have been welded together to form a shade wall/wind barrier for the little courtyard that serves as the Ferris wheel’s ticket sales/concession stand.

Wheeler District
The western-facing side of four containers form a barrier against wind and sun on the grounds of the Ferris wheel in OKC. (Josh McBee)

I imagine they’re the same containers that the various pieces of the wheel came in, but I don’t know that for sure. Still, I found myself in poignant reflection as I sat in their shadow, as if maybe their simple implementation signaled a true motivation upon the part of the developers to make good on their promises of eco-friendly urban development in the Wheeler District.

As the wheel spins on like a gear in a giant clock, only time will tell.

Container homes that fail the homeless

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.

Brighton, England

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 PropertyWCEC 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.

Tiny homes vs. container homes

After a year of speaking with people about this project, I feel it’s important to clarify some terms. While I’m not militant on the issue, there’s a difference between what people generally call “tiny homes” and the “container home” I’m building. The difference is mainly one of size, mobility, and permanence. For the following discourse, let’s assume “tiny home” refers to a trailer-based dwelling, which seems to be the most common method on TV and in online plans.

It basically breaks down like this for the tl;dr crowd:
Tiny home pros – mobility
Tiny home cons – smaller than a 40-foot container home; more like an RV re: utilities; vulnerable to extreme weather.

Container home pros – larger than most tiny homes; more like a traditional house re: utilities; more permanent but with potential for relocation; durability in extreme weather.
Container home cons – not truly mobile.

Tiny homes are generally smaller
Search the term “tiny home.” It’s likely Tubleweed Tiny Homes is the top result. These guys have been around since 1999 and sell plans for a tiny home that resembles a highly customized RV. Using a flatbed trailer as the basis for the structure, the footprint of the home is generally limited to the size of the trailer bed. At 238 square feet, the Cyprus Horizon is Tumbleweed’s largest floor plan.

On the other hand, the footprint of one 40-foot container is 320 square feet. After framing, insulation, and wall board, the interior of my container will equal about 270 square feet of livable space. Most of Tumbleweed’s plans call for less than 240 square feet, with many falling below the 200 sf mark. While the company does sell a customized 26-foot trailer, this will cost between $6,100 to $6,900 depending on options just for the trailer. Notably, this is comparable to the cost of my foundation walls (which are admittedly over-engineered and could be substituted with a different foundation for much cheaper).

Further, most people use more than one 40-foot container for their container-based projects. This allows for expansion on an exponential scale without necessarily doubling the price of construction. This guy offers a good example of keeping a three-container home within a budget (although it took him several years to complete the work by himself…).

Tiny homes are mobile
As mentioned, the creation of a home on a trailer gives it a mobility similar to an RV. Like an RV, there will generally be utility hook ups for water and electricity (most favor electricity over natural gas, although propane tanks may be used for the cooktop and water heater; don’t run out during a shower or while cooking!). There will also be an RV-style toilet or composting toilet and all the tank and maintenance issues that go along with them. While some people choose to place their tiny home on land with permanent hook ups, thereby avoiding the RV-like maintenance issues, one can see how the trailer-based tiny home is really more like an RV than a traditional “home.” But then again, it’s mobile! Owners can choose their own adventure depending on the seasons.

Meanwhile, shipping containers generally lack wheels, so they’re basically immobile. I would say they’re portable rather than mobile, though, as the box itself was originally designed for hauling via ship, train and semi truck during international transit. While my container is currently welded to the top of its foundation walls, those welds could be cut off and the box lifted via crane and placed on the back of a goose-neck trailer hauled by a dually truck (which is the reverse process of how it was installed). Still, my container home will feature city water and grid electricity (which may change to solar in the future…stay tuned), thus avoiding the RV-like problems inherent in similar tiny homes.

Tiny homes lack permanence
To piggyback on the concept of mobility, tiny homes lack permanence compared to a container home. With axles and wheels separating the trailer from the earth, one need only refer to the idea of a mobile home flung skyward during a tornado to imagine how one of Tumbleweed’s models might fare in Tornado Alley. Unlike an RV, which generally sits covered in a port or garage when not in use, these ornate tiny homes are meant to be seen. They generally sit unprotected to mimic the independence of traditional houses. Also, because they use traditional building materials like lumber, shingles and nails, owners essentially get about 200 square feet of sticks mounted to a trailer on wheels. I doubt the ability of even the best-constructed Tumbleweed house to survive winds like those experienced in the OKC metro earlier this year. Tumbleweed indeed!

Meanwhile, my container home isn’t going anywhere. The crane operator who lifted it onto the foundation informed me it weighs about 10,000 pounds, which is about 10 more pounds per square foot than a mobile home of equivalent size. In addition to being heavier, my container home is “permanently” fixed to the ground. Although it could be moved with some elbow grease and heavy equipment, Mother Nature will likely fail to even dent the exterior should an EF 5 rip through its neighborhood in SE OKC. I’ve also taken some precautions to protect the more expensive glazing, but more on that later…

So, when you’re talking to people about your dreams of living off the grid or owning your own home some day, I hope you keep in mind the difference between the various options available. Both of the above options are small by many accounts, and while a tiny home may satisfy your wanderlust, only a container home can offer exponential expansion, worry-free comforts, and increased durability over traditional building.

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,

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.

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!

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!