In Northport, a Couple’s Purple Shipping-Container Compound Stops Traffic
Four boxes comprise the main home and three more house guests.
ABOVE Douglas-fir soffits work with the bold paint job to warm the metal exterior of the shipping-container compound’s main house.
TEXT BY SUZANNE RICO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MYRIAM BABIN
Liz and Todd Howard jokingly call the folks stopping their cars in front of their Northport home “the gawkers.” Some look surprised — others perplexed — as they take in the boxy buildings, the largest one fronted by a large, intentionally rusting metal planter bursting with color. A home built from shipping containers is an oddity, especially in Maine, and people have questions. Like, “Why is it purple?”
“Quixotic Plum, actually,” Liz says, referencing her favorite color by Sherwin-Williams. “And I get more compliments on that than anything else.”
While the shade pops beautifully against the surrounding birches and oaks and slice of Penobscot Bay in the distance, those kudos were hard to come by at first. “People weren’t keen on it when the containers were just sitting here,” says Todd, an architect. “They called it a container park.”
ABOVE 1) Wentworth Hill Landscape and Tree Service, of Brooks, designed the lush gardens that embrace Todd and Liz Howard’s Northport. 2) Lincolnville’s White Crane Construction built a network of ipe catwalks that link the main home to a trio of guest cabins.
Todd began conceiving his shipping-container dream home more than a decade ago, when he and Liz, who are based in Dallas, bought an acre of land in Northport’s Bayside neighborhood, known for its quaint Victorian-era cottages. He fell in love with Maine during an internship at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in Deer Isle, and the state’s unique “reuse and recycle” culture appealed to him. “Why not utilize existing resources, minimally adapted,” he wondered, “as long as function is achieved?”
Initially, function was the challenge. After doing several renderings, Todd decided to implement a side-by-side design with the help of Belfast’s K Construction: two 8-by-40-foot containers merged to create an open living/dining/kitchen space, with a staggered third container housing a bedroom and bath. A fourth box, used for storage, and a concrete wall elevate the home, giving it the airy feel of a tree house. Inside, white-painted birch walls, attached to the metal with spray-foam insulation, create a cozy “box within a box,” Todd says. Pine beams lend strength and warmth, and floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors provide wooded bay views. “It was important that the space be open and free,” Todd says, “so that being inside felt like being outside.”
ABOVE 1) Paintings by South Portland’s Joshua Ferry (left) and Stonington’s Avery Falkner punctuate the living/dining area. 2) The kitchen cabinets, from Viking Lumber, pick up the gray-blue of nearby Penobscot Bay.
Liz was apprehensive at first. “But that’s just my nature,” she says. “I wanted a regular house with room for family and friends.” But her husband figured out how to accommodate them too. Three 8-by-20-foot containers, fitted with built-in trundle beds and tiny baths and connected to the main house via ipe catwalks, dot the property’s downslope. Katherine, the couple’s 21-year-old daughter who visits often, has found only one drawback: “It’s hard to shave my legs in the shower!”
Todd laughs, insisting that’s a small price to pay for this clever, quirky summer compound. Standing on the main home’s lofted ipe deck, he takes inventory of the containers, dinged and dented in spots, that have taken on a whole new life. “They’re not perfect, but it feels good to purposefully reuse them,” he says. And, perhaps, to inspire others to follow a similar path. Now, when a car idles out front and another gawker raises an iPhone to snap a picture, Todd and Liz give a friendly wave. Maybe, they think, their container-house cool will catch on.