Container Homes

A lurker asked me about shipping container homes and the PUD Container Home project planned by Voodoo Dream Work LLC at 3919 North Michigan Road between Plymouth and LaPaz. I don’t generally comment on other developer’s projects, but I cannot imagine that this isn’t an improvement on what’s existing. I wish Mr. Landgrebe and Voodoo the best and hope their project is successful.

Former Community Garden Site

My lurker asked what I thought of the shipping container home concept. I actually looked into this before and was given some drawings by Brent Martin, SRKM Architecture, to consider. I hadn’t considered container homes for a whole subdivision as Mr. Landgrebe is proposing, but I thought they would be interesting to consider for infill lots. There are many small lots that were platted when standards were looser, that would be difficult to develop now due to setbacks and other restrictions.

Corner of Clymax & Jefferson

There are several lots in Culver that are virtually undevelopable due to their size and setback restrictions. The former Community Garden parcel owned by the Wesley United Methodist Church at the NE corner of Slate Street and Lewis Street comes to mind. Another is the parcel at the SE corner of Clymax Street and Jefferson Street. Not only does the second one have streets on two sides, but it has issues with utility poles and an alley.

An interesting side note: Culver’s current Building Commissioner has a different interpretation of setbacks for corner lots than was enforced in the past. In the past, a lot that fronted two streets was considered to have two front yards and consequently two rear yards. The current interpretation is that the front yard is the side with the street address making the rear yard the opposite from that. This will help some of these difficult small lots.

Sand Hill Farm Apartment 2 Bedroom Rendering from SRKM Architecture

The biggest positive for shipping container construction is that modular construction can be highly efficient. Parts and pieces that can be manufactured in a controlled, factory setting can speed up construction in the field. Sand Hill Farm Apartments were based on modular construction, with each apartment based on a standardized two bedroom layout. The three bedroom units are the same two bedroom unit layout with stairs to a third bedroom above. The one bedroom units are the same two bedroom unit layout with the second bedroom truncated to allow space for the office in one case and a maintenance room in the other. I spent a lot of time working with Hi Tech Housing, Inc. out of Bristol, hoping to use them and their version of modular construction. In the end, that just didn’t work out.

The main problem I found when I looked into shipping containers was their rigidity; ironically, one of the positives their proponents tout. 1) The module that they create is limiting. To make them into a home, they need to be framed out to allow space for insulation and space for infrastructure like plumbing and electrical to run throughout the space. This reduces the living space. 2) Their steel frames mean that any modifications require a cutting torch. 3) Any attempts to combine them are made difficult by the deep corrugations, which are designed to give them strength, but create additional space issues. 4) Cuts made for doors, windows and larger openings between them take away some of the strength inherent to the modular unit. 5) The Building Inspectors I’ve talked to are uncomfortable inspecting them with the modifications, and would require an Architect or Engineer to sign off on them. This creates a problem in finding an Architect or Engineer comfortable in doing this.

Shipping Container Home from the site

The shipping container home shown in the picture to the right is what I envisioned for some of the above infill sites in Culver, but if would have had Building Inspector issues and would still have required local variances as it would have been below Culver’s required square footage standards. Check out the site for the home to the right here. They have some other interesting pictures, but most of them are single container homes, making the square footage requirement harder to meet. But picture how much floor space stairs between floors would require and how that would subtract from your usable space when you add a second floor.

I don’t feel like shipping containers as homes follow the axiom of “everything to its highest & best use”. The best use for a shipping container is for shipping material. (Much as I said about the best use of West High School would have been its original designed use as a school.) Architect Belinda Carr does a great job of breaking it down in the video below:

I’m not sure I’m ready to say they’re a scam, but they just didn’t make sense to me. To each their own. I just don’t see them as a panacea to the housing crisis.

Modular construction does make a lot of sense. Sand Hill Farm Apartments, The Paddocks and Riverside Commons were all framed using factory produced wall panels. They’re delivered en masse and then carpenters stand them up on site. We did this with most of the Garden Court projects we built as well. It just makes sense when there are repetitive room shapes and sizes. A big difference is that we can work towards other modular sizes when we build this way. Drywall comes in lengths and widths in multiples of 4′. This makes rooms with dimensions based on 2′ increments more efficient. Carpet comes in 12′ widths. We design for that efficiency. Wood studs have easily determined bearing capacities based on 16″ and 24″ centers… which works out with the 4′ drywall increments. Those same 4′ increments work out for OSB and plywood which is used for exterior wall sheathing and roof decking. Studs come in standard length, which can help determine the most efficient ceiling heights. Considerations of these increments helps reduce waste.

I’ll be watching Mr. Landgrebe’s project with interest. It should be interesting visually and his vacation voucher rental model is novel. I wish him the best and who knows; he may cause me to rethink my views on container housing…

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