Building homes with shipping containers
The man behind what may be Idaho’s first-ever shipping container subdivision isn’t trying to sell something he wouldn’t buy.
David Herman, the son of a Sacramento, Calif., shipping company executive, has had a lifelong fascination with the giant steel containers used to move goods on ships, trains and trucks. He had a business converting containers into equipment shelters for cellular towers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He even lived in a shipping container house in central Oregon for a couple of years (an upgrade from a mobile home he described as a “tuna can with windows”).
During a trip to Montreal in 2013, he was wowed by a three-story hospitality building made with containers for the city’s summer festival.
“It was a really extraordinarily innovative structure,” he said.
Now the 55-year-old Treasure Valley entrepreneur, who runs a chauffered transportation business with his wife, wants to carve out his own niche in the affordable housing market. He’d like to be thought of as “the IKEA of housing.”
“Just because you’re not paying a high price doesn’t mean you don’t want good design and quality materials,” Herman said.
He touts the process of assembling these houses as much faster, cleaner and quieter than traditional construction. His target demographic includes eco-conscious homebuyers looking for new options, first-time homebuyers and empty-nesters. The anticipated sale price: $152,000.
The median sale price for new homes in Ada County in 2015 was $313,900, according to Multiple Listing Service data. The median sale prices for all homes in the county last year was $229,000, while in Garden City it was $155,000.
Building houses from shipping containers may be new to Idaho, but it’s hardly a new concept. A decade ago, they were used in a dormitory to house 1,000 college students in Amsterdam.
“Keetwonen is said to be a roaring success, with units that are well-insulated, surprisingly quiet and comfortable,” Popular Mechanics magazine reported on the college dorm in a feature last year on 45 “amazing” homes and offices built with shipping containers.
Others highlighted included a luxurious beach home in California, a furnished coffee stand in New York and a London office building along the Thames River. The U.S. military has used shipping containers for living quarters, offices, showers and bathrooms in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They do a great job of softening the reverberation of Taliban mortars,” Garden City Councilman William Mitchell said at the council meeting when Herman’s subdivision was approved.
Mitchell, a Marine who currently works as an attorney, later described the structures as “solid, stackable, durable and spacious.” He said they seemed to have a natural insulating ability. He’s glad to see the containers reused for civilian housing, too.
“It’s an industrial chic look,” he said. “Ever since the Eiffel Tower, we’ve seen something that’s appealing about an industrial design. I don’t see the objection in using industry as an inspiration for our architecture.”
Herman plans to get started in mid-April, and he expects to have the subdivision completed by the end of the summer.
There’s intellectual room to be innovative in Garden City.
William Mitchell, Garden City councilman
This subdivision may be high-profile because of the materials that will be used to build the houses. But the development itself is tucked away at 517 E. Remington St., which dead-ends at the Boise River.
Frequent Greenbelt users know Remington well because it’s an important access point to the popular public path.
The 1.2-acre site is bounded by Expo Idaho’s Les Bois racetrack to the west, mobile homes to the south, condos to the east and an empty lot owned by the county to the north. The container houses will be built side-by-side in a single row — oriented north-south — with about 10 feet between each house.
Each house will have 1,280 square feet of living space, a garage, a balcony and a patio
Some city officials are concerned that the density will become a drawback.
“I just thought it was too tight — too many units in there and not enough parking and open space,” said Garden City Council President Pam Beaumont, the lone dissenter on the council’s 3-1 approval.
Mitchell noted that the container-homes subdivision is lower density than his neighborhood, the wildly successful Waterfront District.
HOW DOES THIS WORK?
Herman worked for months with city staff to iron out building code issues. The biggest challenge, he said, was coming up with a roofing system to meet code. His architect, David Hertel, designed it.
“The slope required over the containers is a pretty custom design,” he said. “It’s a single slope.”
Herman will purchase a total of 68 shipping containers for the subdivision (he’s already got six at the site) — each house needs four of the 8-by-40-foot containers (9.5 feet high). Companies shipping goods to the U.S. are happy to sell them, as there’s often nothing to send back the other direction, he said.
8,600 pounds weight of shipping container
One of the half-dozen containers already at the site was used to haul shoes to Oakland, Calif. Used just once, the container already had Apitong wood floors.
Most of the containers will be trucked to a warehouse, where the doors and windows will be cut. All of the containers that Herman is using already have wood floors, and he will add wood to the walls and an acoustic ceramic coating to the ceiling.
The first floor of the three-story houses will be a steel-framed garage. Two sets of side-by-side containers will be stacked on top of the garage and welded together. The third floor will be offset from the second floor to create a patio on one level and a balcony on the other.
The homes won’t be entirely solar-powered, but they will have solar components to provide power. They’ll have electric ductless cooling/heating systems and gas-fueled water heater and range.
No paneling will be added to the exterior of the houses. They will be painted in one of four colors (blue, green, brown and maroon), and Herman will determine the color pattern for the whole row of houses — not prospective buyers.
“To us, it’s important that the set looks good,” he said of the subdivision.