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Washington, D.C.

Shipping containers for housing?

Steel boxes may be solution to shortage

  • This lot on the 3300 block of 7th Street NE, in Washington, D.C., will soon be home to a building made of retired shipping containers.  A view of the construction site from a neighbors front porch is seen on July 17, 2014. Illustrates CONTAINERS (category a), by Michael Laris (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Sunday, July 20, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)

    This lot on the 3300 block of 7th Street NE, in Washington, D.C., will soon be home to a building made of retired shipping containers. A view of the construction site from a neighbors front porch is seen on July 17, 2014. Illustrates CONTAINERS (category a), by Michael Laris (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Sunday, July 20, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)

  • In Dundalk, Md. on July, 17, 2014, terminal manager Bill Creese spray paints a shipping container which is being readied for placement on a lot in Washington, D.C. Discarded shipping containers are being eyed as a solution to the shortage of affordable housing. Illustrates CONTAINERS (category a), by Michael Laris (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Sunday, July 20, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)

    In Dundalk, Md. on July, 17, 2014, terminal manager Bill Creese spray paints a shipping container which is being readied for placement on a lot in Washington, D.C. Discarded shipping containers are being eyed as a solution to the shortage of affordable housing. Illustrates CONTAINERS (category a), by Michael Laris (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Sunday, July 20, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)

  • This lot on the 3300 block of 7th Street NE, in Washington, D.C., will soon be home to a building made of retired shipping containers.  A view of the construction site from a neighbors front porch is seen on July 17, 2014. Illustrates CONTAINERS (category a), by Michael Laris (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Sunday, July 20, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)
  • In Dundalk, Md. on July, 17, 2014, terminal manager Bill Creese spray paints a shipping container which is being readied for placement on a lot in Washington, D.C. Discarded shipping containers are being eyed as a solution to the shortage of affordable housing. Illustrates CONTAINERS (category a), by Michael Laris (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Sunday, July 20, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)

They are the building blocks of the global economy, 20 million big steel boxes sloshing across oceans on mammoth container ships.

Starting yesterday, the first of 18 dented outcasts were set to be stacked in a dug-out Washington, D.C., basement, turning a deteriorating student group house into an experiment in creating eye-catching housing, fast and on the cheap.

Among the questions raised: Can hundreds of thousands of discarded sea containers, long talked up by designers, really help create more affordable housing, or is it mostly a gimmick? And just how do you bring humanity to the confines of an 8-by-40-foot box?

If the economics work and people actually enjoy living in lovingly repurposed steel husks, the architects on the project have bigger dreams, including floating hundreds of sea container apartments on a barge in the Potomac River and creating a homeless village on the river to serve Georgetown.

First, though, things have to go smoothly this week in a booming swath of the District just down the street from Catholic University, where theology graduate and former fullback Matthew Grace, 31, and his business partner and Cardinals teammate Sean Joiner, 31, are living with the anxiety-inducing results of a decision they made on a snowy day last winter.

Instead of fixing up the aging rental house they bought in 2009 as moonlighting real estate investors, they tore it down. For years, the young real estate entrepreneurs had been tapping the architectural mind of Grace’s fiancee for free: wall colors, building materials, general notions about design. Grace had met Kelly Davies at Catholic and traveled with her and architecture lecturer Travis Price, to Ireland, where Price had taken students on a design expedition he started decades ago.

Davies, the project architect, can sound euphoric describing what they’ve done to try to bring the rusted boxes to life. The container doors will be welded open, to create shade fins, and replaced by windows that stretch nearly 9 feet from floor to ceiling. Another full-length window will sit opposite a mirrored wardrobe in each container/bedroom.

“It’s going to make the container feel like it’s not this long corridor. It’s a full explosion into the outdoors,” Davies said.

Workers in Baltimore cut steel panels from the containers so there will be open space for a kitchen and living room when the containers are pushed together.

The containers will be on three levels, six containers per level, with a cellar unit. Each of the four floors is designed as a single apartment, each with six bedrooms and six bathrooms.

Walls to the outside from the main living areas will be made of a kind of translucent plastic that’s used for greenhouses. A stair tower and addition will be covered with the same Polygal material. “It’s like a giant night light,” Davies said.

The containers will have sound and heat insulation, birch plywood walls and the original marine-grade plywood floors that once carried cheap goods to American shores.

Older containers can sell for $2,000, though project backers won’t say how much they’re spending overall or charging for rent. The apartments are open to all, but are being grabbed up by students from Catholic because of the convenience, Price said, and most of the units are already taken.

“We budgeted a target that was very low compared to conventional construction, and we’re hitting it,” Price said. If they stay on pace, more radical things are possible, he said.

Small successes can beget bigger ones, Price said, just as the little solar house he built in the ’70s was followed by a million-square-foot version in Tennessee years later.

Price is searching for land along the Potomac for his next dream project: a multistory sea-container apartment complex floating on a massive barge. “Sort of Sausalito meets Holland meets D.C., maybe down by the Nats,” Price said. “It’s sort of like Watergate for the masses, on water.”

City officials were noncommittal, saying that such ideas are fascinating but that they’d need to know more.

“When we’re presented with these kinds of questions, the first thing we’re going to do is see if the code will allow them,” said Matt Orlins, spokesman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

After the containers are welded together this week, the remaining construction is set to be competed by the end of August.

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