Architecture & Design

Should You Live In a Shipping Container?

They’re of a piece with Maine’s maritime setting, but require some ingenuity to turn into homes.

shipping container house

ABOVE Jen Sansosti and Steve White’s modified container home perches in a two-acre clearing overlooking a pond on a 63-acre Brooklin plot.

TEXT BY JESSE ELLISON
PHOTOGRAPED BY JEFF ROBERTS

Jen Sansosti says reading about shipping containers in the industrial port of Elizabeth, New Jersey, was, in part, what made her want to live in one. She resided across the river in Brooklyn in 2007, when she read a story about Elizabeth and other spots where the sun seemed to set earlier because it was obscured by stacks of corrugated-metal cargo crates. She was just out of college, commuting to a tenuous graphic design job, and, forebodingly, rattled by the recent SARS and bird flu pandemics. “Being in crowded areas was becoming more and more unappealing,” she says. Dreaming of living remotely and self-sufficiently, she began researching “alternative architecture,” and discovered shipping container homes — a solution that also helps reduce global stockpiles. She bought two containers on eBay for $1,500 apiece and told her parents she was going to move them to the country and live off the grid. “They said, “So you’re going to live in a dumpster in the woods?’” recalls Sansosti, who is now based in “the other” Brooklin.

This was about half a decade before “container architecture” went mainstream. Today, you can buy a modestly decorated container house with patio doors and a mini-fridge for just under $40,000 on Amazon. There are container shopping malls, container apartment buildings, and countless winsome, glowing container dwellings on Pinterest and design blogs. Typically 8 by 20 or 40 feet, the crates can be arranged in any formation you can conjure with Legos — from a simple double-decker stack to a 12-vessel array separated by a giant glass-walled room, like the Brooklin home New Jersey container architecture pioneer Adam Kalkin designed for Sansosti’s friends, Anne and Matthew Adriance. “Straight out of the gate, they’re wind- and waterproof structures,” Sansosti says. Not to mention fireproof, rodent proof, and, to minimalists and the tiny home curious, downright adorable.

ABOVE The interior features whitewashed and brightly painted metal walls, whimsical furnishings, and a “cloud” pendant Sansosti made. White crafted the deck’s mahogany-and-granite table; it bears an etching of a sloop his company, Brooklin Boat Yard, built.

They’re also piling up: by some estimates, there are as many as 11 million unused shipping containers sitting in ports around the world. Some have outlasted their warranties; others are awaiting freight to somewhere else. But it can cost more to ship one than to buy one, and in the United States, where more goods come in than go out, the surplus is a particular concern. Last year, Iceland-based Eimskip, which sends upwards of 30,000 shipping containers through Portland annually, was offering $800 incentives to encourage local exporters to use their crates. Increasingly, container building companies and enthusiasts, like Sansosti, are buying up unexpired vessels.

After installing her containers in an L shape on a plot in rural Pennsylvania, Sansosti and a former partner added walls and insulation, carved out windows, and wired them for off-grid living, but she wanted more land. In 2010, she drove past Happytown Road in Ellsworth and thought, “There! I want to live there!” But once she’d settled on 63 acres on that cheerfully named stretch, she realized her structures “weren’t insulated for Maine.” And after breaking up with her partner and meeting Brooklin Boat Yard president Steve White, who was in the early stages of building a shipping container houseboat, she began to formulate grander architectural plans. The two became partners and collaborated on their projects.

Sansosti had already welded her containers together, offsetting them by about eight feet. White suggested she lift them up and place a garage underneath to house the battery bank for her 5.5 kW solar array. She cut an opening where the container walls meet to create a central living/ dining space and added a sloped-roof bedroom at one end and a bath at the other, using 2-by-6 frames. Three inches of spray foam beneath the live-edge cedar siding, three-inch-thick rigid foam beneath the bamboo floors, and a propane fireplace and heater keep the place toasty. All told, Sansosti estimates the materials and labor, most of which she did herself, came in under $120,000.

shipping container kitchen

Of course, those who outsource will face higher costs. A longtime admirer of container homes, Portland architect Will Winkelman has designed them, but none came to fruition. Because of the effort required to make metal boxes inhabitable, he says, “They’re not a big money saver in the end.” And yet, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Brewer custom prefab container homebuilder SnapSpace Solutions has gone from receiving three or four inquiries a week to nearly 20, COO Dexter Cowperthwaite says. The biggest draws? The homes’ industrial-cool aesthetic and the fact that they’re livable within days of arriving on site. And with pressure on the market from rising home prices, a dearth of available housing stock, and contractors who are booked two to three years in advance, SnapSpace’s rates — starting at about $142 per square foot for an average build — are becoming more competitive all the time.

Last September, Sansosti’s house was finally complete. Cleverly furnished with a lavender sectional and aqua chairs in the living room, an oxidized copper countertop and matching teal metal wall in the kitchen, and a massive Poly-Fil “cloud” pendant in the bedroom, it’s warm and endlessly intriguing. Sansosti and White spent one night there before decamping to their Brooklin place to allow for a steady stream of Airbnb guests. Could the popularity presage a container housing boom in the Pine Tree State? Sansosti hopes so. “In my opinion, there should be container houses everywhere.”


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