In the course of my day job, we recently acquired a 360-degree camera. I was fortunate enough to use this device to take some pics of the OKC container home in 360 degrees. Take the OKC container home 360 tour below by clicking the play button on each image and then using the mouse to navigate each immersive space. For those of you with VR headsets, you can click the three dots in the upper right of each image and activate VR mode, then use your camera and headset to view each area as if you were there:
NOTE: Permits were actually approved BEFORE the foundations were poured. In my eagerness to bring readers up to speed on current progress, I overlooked this important step and posted foundation pics in a previous entry.
People often ask about the permitting issues I’ve encountered while building the container home. I immediately respond that the city has been quite amenable to my plans. It helps that I hired an amazing architect to act as my general contractor and liaison during the project’s outset, but it wasn’t particularly necessary.
During a permitting meeting in June of 2014, Larry met with City of OKC officials to review comments on our proposed plans. They said it was the first they’d seen for residential container living in OKC. So, to be first (on paper anyway) is nice.
They had some changes though: The front door would have to be widened to 36″ to meet code (I think it was originally 24″ or 30″), and the proposed driveway would have to have a little peninsula that abuts with the perimeter of the home. Last, any fence we install would be limited to a max height of 8 feet, and I think we were thinking 9 feet originally. Making the changes was easy enough, and I understand that plans can be approved with penciled-in edits created right there in the meeting. With that, we got our permit (#BLDR-2014-08295, which you can look up here) approved for the building and fence. Fees totaled $70.50.
Really, submitting plans successfully requires little more than a drawing on paper with all the rooms and dimensions labeled. It doesn’t even have to be to scale, and it doesn’t need to be a fancy blueprint (although mine was). So, I didn’t NEED an architect to complete this step for me, but I was working on oil wells at the time and usually several hours away (plus working nights and asleep during the day), so I couldn’t have boots on the ground in OKC. I’ve also been trying my best on this project to have everything done as professionally as possible; no “Billy Bob” shenanigans, if you will. Hiring an architect definitely cut down on the amount of back and forth I likely would’ve experienced trying to do this on my own from the outset.
So, unless there’s zoning restrictions or historical considerations related to a potential build site, I imagine a container home that adheres to codes would gain approval anywhere in O-City. It wasn’t a matter of pulling strings, greasing palms or knowing the right people; just follow the rules and it should work. For the next project (assuming there will be one), I will likely do my own permit leg work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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!
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.