Shipping containers: affordable housing solution?

By Michael Laris / The Washington Post

Published Jul 21, 2014 at 12:01AM

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

Starting today, the first of 18 dented outcasts are 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 by the effort: 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.

“There’s not a lot of going back from that,” Joiner said.

“You go from something you can rent to a big hole,” Grace said.

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.

“We were building monuments, and we needed hands,” said Davies, who is now at Price’s firm.

Grace and Joiner had tried getting into real estate back when they were roommates at Catholic. But it wasn’t until the easy-credit housing boom of the mid-2000s that they bought their first rowhouse on Capitol Hill.

They lived together in the basement, fixed it up and rented out the upstairs, and slowly pieced together a half-dozen properties, which they manage when they’re not working their day jobs at a financial-planning firm in Bethesda, Maryland.

As landlords, they’ve rented to Catholic’s football players and other students, young professionals and others trying to keep up with soaring District rents, they said. They’ve tried to keep their costs low and avoided being too ambitious in their overhauls.

But problems with the foundation at their house on Seventh Street NE, just down from the university and a towering new development at the Brookland Metro station, left cracked walls, and they needed to do something big.

They decided to hire Davies and her boss.

As Price sketched ideas and cost estimates for remaking the house, “I was like, ‘Stop what you’re doing. What is that number?’” Grace recalled. They couldn’t afford it.

Then “Travis kind of sits back from the table and says, ‘How about we do it with shipping containers?’”

They thought it was crazy.

Then they didn’t.

“I wanted to do this since I was in college myself,” Price said last week.

In the ’70s, as he pondered the question of “how to solve mass housing,” Price proposed building a 10-story steel frame for holding sea-container homes — “like a kind of ‘Blade Runner’ look,” he said. It was supposed to be “plug-and-play,” meaning a family could detach the utilities and move. “You’re in a new city in your same house,” Price said.

Now, he’s reached back into what he calls his “spiritual backpack” with a chance to figure out if building a sea- container apartment really makes sense. While designers around the world have crafted creative dwellings out of containers in recent years, Price’s clients have balked once they have seen the cost of the radical modifications they expect in the simple rectangular structures.

Here, though, “we’re actually using those existing units, and we’re not violating them dramatically,” Price said. “That makes the difference. You cut and paste. We could be a lot more theatrical, but then you pay.”

Some longtime Brookland residents view the coming sea-container house as part of a broader rush of development that has violated their neighborhood.

A couple of houses down, Ewan Brown is feeling surrounded. Since he arrived in 1990, a stream of neighbors have sold their properties to developers or rented out their homes to students. As a huge new apartment complex went up kitty-cornered from him, he’s felt the rumble of jackhammers, and more is coming.

“My house shakes. I feel powerless and useless,” Brown said. “You want to live in peace with your neighbors, but they’re not living in peace with me.”

Living in a container home has no appeal to him.

For Davies and the others behind the SeaUA project — a play on CUA, the abbreviation for Catholic University of America — the container apartment is a chance to make a beautiful and practical improvement to the neighborhood.

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 spoken for.