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Across The Country, People Are Lining Up To Live In Old Shipping Containers

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For an architect, innovative designs usually take years, rather than months, to materialize. But when Travis Price was approached by a panicked DC landlord needing a quick way to replace his dilapidated house in time for Catholic University students to move in that fall, he had just the solution. 

Travis Price
Travis Price and Senior Architect Kelly Davies Grace

Price, pictured above with senior architect Kelly Davies Grace, decided to try building with something unconventional: old sea shipping containers. 

In less than six months, Price had finished designing, permitting and building the three-story, 24-bed apartment building made from 18 shipping containers in time for students to rent it in September. Price was amazed how quickly the project sailed through the permitting process, which typically would have put him past his deadline before construction could even begin.

"We convinced the city, and it was not a hard sell," Price said. "They loved it, and every jurisdiction we’ve gone to and shown what it means, they’ve said, 'how many, how fast?'"

When it came time to rent to students, it turned out the design was more than just convenient, it was also popular. 

"The line was a mile long," Price said. "They want to be in the cool, hip new thing." 

As one of the concept's pioneers, Price is often contacted by developers interested in building with shipping containers. He has conducted feasibility studies for roughly 70 other potential projects, about 30 of which he says appear to be moving forward.

Travis Price shipping container apartments

At any given time, Price said, more than 2 million empty sea containers sit idle around the globe. For US companies to import goods, he said, it is often cheaper to build new containers abroad than to ship empty ones back for refill, creating a stock of empty containers around the country's ports that architects can use as building material. 

"I see it as a wave now that’s not going to stop," Price said of the building concept.

Made of corten steel, the containers are stronger than most materials used to build housing. They are all eight feet wide, making for an adequately spacious living area, and can be stacked in a row or, like Legos, on top of each other. The idea of recycling old materials and living simply is part of the appeal, Price said. 

Travis Price Brookland sea container apartments

Living in one of the sea container apartments doesn't feel much different than a typical modern building, Price said. He says clients can choose to expose some of the corrugated steel to give it an authentic feel, as shown in one of the completed units above, in DC's Brookland neighborhood. 

The containers are nine feet tall, and Price typically uses floor-to-ceiling windows, which, along with the sea container material, provide enough insulation, he said. Price uses modern industrial materials like birch, maple and mahogany for the interiors.

"It’s kind of a genre of modernism to use less to make more," Price said. "In this case, the sea container is pushing that to its very limits already...For retiring people, for Millennials, everybody we have as clients, they’re all hungry for that."

Travis Price Brookland

After building those first Brookland apartments, Price decided to keep using the concept. He is currently in the final planning stages of two more similarly sized sea container projects: a four-unit condo building in Shaw with developer Rob Carter, and another rental project in Brookland with the Hinds family. He expects both projects to break ground in the next two to four months.

The concept has drawn so much interest from around the world, Price said, that he spends half of his day fielding phone calls from interested developers. He said he has discussed building larger projects (up to 200 units) and building offices out of sea containers, and he has been approached about using the efficient design for homelessness and refugee camps in Jordan. 

Containers on Grand StarkJames

One Phoenix-based architect that visited Price during construction of the first Brookland project, StarkJames, is building shipping container projects of its own. The firm used 16 shipping containers last year to build an eight-apartment project in downtown Phoenix, Containers on Grand, the first of its kind on the West Coast. 

StarkJames partner Kathleen Santin says the firm, which designs and builds its projects, couldn't get traditional financing for the unconventional building style, so it had to use private capital. She said the firm considered it more of a pet project than a real money-making opportunity, but was soon shocked at the reaction. When leasing out Containers on Grand (rendered above) Santin said the waiting list for the eight units grew to more than 200 people. 

"The allure of the shipping containers continues to surprise me personally," Santin said. "There is a tremendous amount of interest in it across the board, not just from architects. There is a certain romance to them I can’t put my finger on."  

The Oscar StarkJames

StarkJames is working on another sea container project in Phoenix, dubbed The Oscar. The building, rendered above, will include nine apartments and ground-floor commercial space.

Construction began in October, and Santin said StarkJames plans to deliver the units by May 1. She said they're experimenting a little more with their second sea container project by sand-blasting the containers and adding the commercial component, which could be either a live-work space or retail.

"It’s a very efficient form of construction," Santin says. "You’ve got the structure, and you don’t have to do all the things you have to do when you build any other kind of building." 

The Yard At Mission Rock

Shipping containers are a natural fit for housing units, but they can work for retail, too. California-based UrbanBloc creates shops and restaurants out of sea containers, like the ones above at the San Francisco Giants Stadium.

UrbanBloc CEO Martha Trela said her firm likes using sea containers because it recycles unused waste, and it allows her team to create vibrant outdoor areas in places where traditional real estate investment may be scarce.

"Being able to activate empty parking lots in a temporary mode—we call it transitional development," Trela said. "It allows us to make an area productive that might be in a neighborhood that is transitioning."