The Housing Recovery: From REO-To-Rent To Containers-To-Condos

Tyler Durden's picture

With REO-to-Rent now yesterday's trade, the Baltic Dry Index stumbling along near its lows (along with a glut of containers), and a 'recovery' in US housing, what better than to leverage all of these themes; to wit, as ABC News reports, the first U.S. multi-family condo built of used shipping containers is slated to break ground in Detroit early next year. So forget Trailer Parks, now the increasingly mothballed ports of America will be wonderful waterfront property courtesy of your very own (slightly used) cargo container. One proponent of this 'cargotecture' warns that although containers can be bought for as little as $2,500, they should not be thought of as a low-cost housing solution. Tempted? We are sure; below are several current developments.



Here’s a few recent North American projects – including the new condo complex  – where the shipping container takes center stage:

Exceptional Green Living on Rosa Parks, Detroit: Container to Condo

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Image Credit: Three Squared Inc.

This 20-unit, four-story condo complex consisting of 93 stacked cargo containers — the first U.S. multi-family residence  to be built from these discarded vessels — has been in the works for four years.  Tabled when the national real estate market shattered, the project is now scheduled to break ground early next year  in midtown Detroit. The units will come rigged with ductless heating and air systems, tankless water heaters and other energy-saving systems. “We’re putting money into these energy efficiencies so that the tenant has reduced energy costs,” says Leslie Horn, CEO of Three Squared, the project’s developer.  “And we can build in less than half the time.”

The Sunset Cargotecture House, Seattle: Home Sweet Container

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Image Credit: Photo by Thomas J. Story, Sunset Publishing Corp.

Built and designed by HyBrid Architecture as the Sunset magazine Idea House 2011, this 192-square-foot solar-powered  backyard container cottage is not even half the size of a New York City studio apartment.

Still, it manages to pack in a galley kitchen and micro bathroom with a ceiling-mounted showerhead – the floor’s redwood slats hide a drain  –  and can sleep up to four  (a bed unfolds from the wall, a couch converts, another bed can be added). But given the close quarters, it’s probably best if everyone’s related.

 Cinco Camp, Brewster County, Texas:  Light on the Land

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Image Credit: Hester + Hardaway

Five freestanding cargo containers lined up and cinched together on a 3,000-acre ranch in the rugged, rocky high desert mountains of West Texas reduce life to its basics:  One container holds a living room;  two house bedrooms and bathrooms;  another a kitchen and eating area, while the last  is for storage.

Minimalism was the goal here. “It was more about the arrangement of the boxes. Most architects see those containers, and they want to manipulate them too much and cut them all up,” says Mark Wellen, who designed Cinco Camp for Roger Black, a former Rolling Stone and  New York Times art director who’d grown sick of the Hamptons.

Stripped of their paint and topped with large roof canopies for shade, each  box sits off the ground on short stilts. There’s rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders, all kinds of bugs,” says Wellen. “We made a conscious effort to get it off the ground.”

Weirdly enough, a major east-west railroad runs through this middle-of-nowhere terrain three to five times a day, its long, distant cars loaded with shipping containers, a regular reminder from where this home came.

The Box Office, Providence, R.I.: Lego Land

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Image Credit: Nat Rea

Rust-tinted brown wasn’t the look the Box Office designers were going for. This three-story, 12,000-square-foot complex, which sits like a child’s Lego dome in a post-industrial section of Providence, is the largest office building in the United States made exclusively of cargo containers.

“The building is made of 140 tons of recycled steel, but it’s very difficult for a green building to have an identity,” says Peter Case, who developed and helped design the Box Office.  ”The bright paint, the solar panels on top get the message across that this is a green building.”

Case abandoned plans for a conventional office complex when the economy faltered and instead bought 35  shipping containers. But, he says, with construction costs at $1.6 million, the containers didn’t really save him money.

“A shipping container doesn’t want to be a building,” Case explains. “So you have to do quite a bit of gymnastics that cost money.” But the Box Office  is four times more energy efficient than a typical office building, and that’s where Case says he’ll see savings.  ”There’s no way for air to come in or out of a shipping container,” he says, “unless you want it to.”

Muvbox, Montreal: Take a Break in a Crate

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Muvbox

An art object by night and a snack cart by day, this pop-up lobster shack opened in the Old Port of Montreal two years ago. Motorized and illuminated by solar-powered batteries, Muvbox opens and closes in about  90 seconds — the side panels unfold to become terraces with table-seating.

The brainchild of Daniel Noiseaux, the design-obsessed restaurateur who brought wood-oven pizza to Montreal 31 years ago, Muvbox was inspired by the horse-drawn snack carts  and old-style canteens of centuries past, and Adam Kalkin’s  Push Button House  installation of 2006.

While Montreal was first, Muvboxes have since surfaced in Paris, Toronto and New York’s Times Square, where the lobster frescoes yield to black-and-white stripes, and the menu changes from lobster to hot dogs and bagels. A movable feast indeed.

DeKalb Market, Brooklyn, N.Y.: A Portable Souk

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Image Credit: Eddy Valante

A cluster of about 60  food and Etsy-style arts and clothing vendors operating out of shipping containers on a vacant Brooklyn lot, the DeKalb Market is no Dordoy Bazaar in Kyrgyzstan or Seven-Kilometer Market in Ukraine. The first U.S. container project of U.K.-based developer Urban Space — most famous for its Container City complexes in London — DeKalb dismantled in October to make way for a long-stalled housing-retail development as its planners continue to negotiate for a new location. Good thing those containers are so portable.

Aprisa Mexican Cuisine, Portland, Ore.: A Movable Taqueria

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Lance

Having had  two restaurants fail on him,  Kirk Lance vowed if he ever opened another he’d  have to be able to pick it up and move it if it started to backslide.

As he drove  down the interstate in Oregon, where Lance had moved and had his eco-conscience raised,  he noticed “giant yards … with hundreds, possibly thousands” of shipping containers stacked up and suddenly saw his next restaurant. He bought one of these cargo holders, for about $3,000.

“It was the culmination of sustainability and recycling  and portability all coming together,” Lance says. And then there’s the romance of it: “This shipping container has traveled all over the world,” says Lance. “It’s shipped tons of who knows what, and for me it’s kind of intriguing that it gets to have a second life.”

Turning the retired cargo vessel into a taqueria wasn’t that hard, says Lance. Cutting out windows, spraying in the foam insulation, “anybody with a little construction background can probably figure those things out,” he says.

But getting the permits, the blueprints, the structural engineering reports through the state of Oregon took four years, and added “a ton” to the cost, Lance says.  ”What kept me going was if I could build one of these things and it works well, I could just copy the blueprints and  build 100 of them,” or pick up and move.

The Shipping Container House, Nederland, Colo.: Still ‘Cargotecture’

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Image Credit: Braden Gunem

True, the Shipping Container House is not all shipping containers, but by definition it’s still cargotecture. The two containers that sandwich the main living area house an office and a bedroom in this 1,500-square-foot mountain home. Designed by Studio H:T in Boulder, Colo., for “a conscientious client who believes in living small and recycling,” the solar-powered house can operate entirely off-grid.

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slaughterer's picture

Containers are hard to cool in the summer heat.   Require lots of air-conditioning. 

xtop23's picture

bury 'em. modest house on top. if this kinda thing really interests you of course.

HomemadeLasagna's picture

Don't burry them unless you do some significant additional welding to the inside first.  The containers are only made to take load vertically on the corners.  The sides are a simple corrugated steel, and have been known to collapse from the weight of the dirt when you backfill around them.

I know people who have successfully burried them without further reinforcement, but I'd never do all that work only to risk being burried alive.

killallthefiat's picture

TPTB are pushing hard on containers and small houses.

Kobe Beef's picture

Let's call 'em Obamavilles.

TheFourthStooge-ing's picture

Saaaay, is that Lahey and Randy in the lower right of the artist's rendition of the Detroit project?

youngman's picture

I buried mine but the roof did cave in after my cows decided that was a cool place to stand.....

Actually I was in Odessa and they have a shopping mall....7 corners I think..all shipping containers...double cluld buy some very nice stuff there...fur coats and everything...

DaveyJones's picture

I buried mine...before they legalized marijuana

unrulian's picture

i really never thought i'd see a trailer park boys reference on ZH... +1 for the mere mention of of a rare TV masterpiece

Dawnofinsanity's picture

If so... it appears that Randy has his shirt on today.  A rarity

Martel's picture

In addition to not being able hold their structure, underground containers rust as well.

DaveyJones's picture

it's poetic really that we end up living in the rusted shells of the very items that helped pull our society down in the first place

lamont cranston's picture

Amen. Just ask anyone who ever had to unload boxcars during the summer in the Deep South. The warehouse manager would put a thermometer inside, and when it dropped to 125º, we'd start unloading boxes. 

El Viejo's picture

Had a friend who put two refrigerated truck trailers side by side. It was pretty nice. They come with hardwood floors and better insulation.

slackrabbit's picture

Dude just open the doors!

(no PhD needed)

Bunga Bunga's picture

It seems that Americans still haven't learned the benfits of insolation.

Long-John-Silver's picture

The "trick" to using containers is placing a vented slanting roof on the container and insulating the outside surfaces of the container. A local company specializes in converting containers here in the Southeast USA. He is an engineer and figured out rather quickly that leaving the steel shell exposed to the outside causes problems of which the least is heating and cooling. What they do is install a framework on the outside of the container, place insulation in the framework along with wiring and plumbing, and then install vinyl siding attaching it to the framework. This eliminates condensation and prevents rapid temperature changes inside the container. The occupant can take advantage of normal heating during the day and cooling at night. In Atlanta, GA at this time of the year (November) where daytime temps can be 70+ degrees and night time temps can drop below freezing the occupant can open the windows during the day where the metal walls collect heat. When the temp starts dropping the occupant closes up his container and the metal walls provide comforting warmth all night long. You end up only supplying additional heating and cooling for 3 or 4 months of the year.

Fred C Dobbs's picture

Do you have a link or the name of the company?

Everybodys All American's picture

Like a refrigerated cool in the winter and an oven in the summer.

CPL's picture

They also rust and leak.  It's a metal shipping container so then there is making sure you've got a ground and proper fixtures which is tough for the average home owner, unless they can use an arc welder.


Then this is the one thing that stops me from buying, even though the lego stacking thing is really cool.


Contaminants.  Shipping containers can hold tv's one direction, and pig's feet on the way back.  God knows what is growing in a dark container for years.

ParkAveFlasher's picture

$2500 buys an awful lot of lumber.

CPL's picture

$2500 can build a really nice log home as long as you build it.  Go direct to the man that owns the lot, bring cash (silver and gold perferred now) and bring a chain saw plus a truck to haul.  Cut all the Manitoba maple and blue spruce you want.  They are giant weeds that take from the oak, birch and elm. 


Don't forget to plant a couple of replacements for each tree.  Plus cuts down on the chance it all burns down with an accidental cig butt.  Rinse and repeat every five years.

ParkAveFlasher's picture

$2500 is the lowest end container itself, per the article above.  '

Thanks for the tips, CPL.  I love that woodsy shit. 

ZH commenters should put out a survival guide. 

CPL's picture

Well if you are looking,

Regional politick rules.  First place of business for business in the Country side is local Masons/Lions/Optimists (in Canada add the Legion) and/or Church.  Attend regularily (lurk a bit and listen).  Have a couple of pints or cups of coffee with locals, see what's happening.  It's not a store, but more of a message tree, you talk about your idea of building a log house but you are short on bread.  Someone will eventually approach as long as you keep delivering the message.

Make a gentleman's agreement, pay the 50 bucks for a local cutting license or whatever the township in the area calls it.  Mark the trees on the lot.  Do a walk through with the owner with some Rye.  Spit, shake, haggle and pay.  Then the actual work can happen.

Rent a portable lumbermill, tape your shirt up so you don't get eaten by the saw by accident and make shingles and maple flooring.  Make the place shabby outside for lower intended tax purposes and a shangrila inside.  Lots of young couples start this way.  Sort of like the amish but with power tools.

DaveyJones's picture

woodsy shit - another term for pine needles?

ParkAveFlasher's picture

..yyeeeeah maybe if you're one of those fru fru owners who frenches his poodle.  A single plywood sheet cut to form and fastened with screws would do for most dogs, anyway.

Bunga Bunga's picture

And steel can melt in a fire completely leading to the collapse of a container building. Gvt says it since 2001.

formadesika3's picture

I'll have a double-wide please.

Hold the pig's feet.

ParkAveFlasher's picture

With all these people setting up fine homes in old factory spaces and shipping containers, why not just do away with manufacturing and shipping altogether?

CPL's picture

FEMA family style living.

ParkAveFlasher's picture

Right!  Nothing like living in a home that can be barricaded and forklifted in the dead of night, with your family inside it.

Kobe Beef's picture

Yep, definitely Obamavilles.

Larry Dallas's picture

Just a trendier version of a trailer park...

For hipsters and other like-kind douchbags.



Cursive's picture

@Everybody's All American

This is what I cannot get beyond.  One of the architects in the post is quoted as saying he will see savings in energy efficiency.  Who's he kidding.  I would fry in one of these during August in Louisiana.

HomemadeLasagna's picture

I have one that stays within a few degrees of ambient air temperature all summer long with no supplemental cooling.  The exterior was painted with a ceramic-based coating that blocks almost all heat transfer.  It is perfectly comfortable in the the summer, and the exterior is cool to the touch.  Given the small footprint, it also save interior space since you no longer have to frame it out to add traditional insulation.

A solar panel array on the roof converts what would have normally been a solar to thermal conversion to a solar to electric conversion instead.  This further reduces the heat load while powering the house.

If I added another ceramic coating to the inside, the container could easily be heated for free in the winter using a solar thermal heater on the south side.

If you buy one, just be prepared to get creative.  Almost nothing about traditional building techniques applies when it comes time to fit out a sealed steel box.  Also, if you intend to live in it, be aware that the treatment on the marine grade plywood floors is highly toxic, and you'll need to pull the floors out and replace them.

bsdetector's picture

can you provide any more info on the ceramic material? It sounds interesting

HomemadeLasagna's picture

The product I used is called SuperTherm:

As to the leaking and rusting comment earlier in this thread, once I went over the used container with a wire brush on my angle grinder, sprayed on a layer of rustoleum primer, and then coated it with SuperTherm, I've had no real issues with rust creeping back through.  The coating acts as a waterproofing agent as well.


Offthebeach's picture

Too rich for muppets s.
old van down by the river for the Bernanke era middle class. For the China wage fighter workers( non-gov ) sapplings and blue tarp with attached 10 mil clear polyethylene 'sun room's.

Pairadimes's picture

House made out of metal or not, it is still wise to park your Volt outdoors.

slaughterer's picture

Didn't Dexter see his mother slaughtered in a container?

ItsDanger's picture

Containers might be popular in the doomsday crowd.  Or do they use buses still?

Glass Seagull's picture

Complete with pickle-jar lavatories.

Mercury's picture

I don't know how well they handle a Viking stove but I can tell you that shipping containers make perfectly serviceable waterfront workshops, club houses and bar any boatyard worker will tell you.

Yen Cross's picture

 Great for collecting electricity during thunder storms.

lolmao500's picture

Only a matter of time before stories of contamined containers used as houses come out...

xtop23's picture

you cant polish a turd.