As a new house went up on his street, Melvin Counsel stopped by with an unusual home-construction question: What do you do about rust?
Not a problem, two architects replied. This house is made of boxes that endure salty intercontinental ocean voyages.
That conversation took place at 56 Vernon St. in the Hill on Monday afternoon, where a new two-family house took shape in less than four hours.
Construction goes fast when you’re building with shipping containers.
The new house, designed by architects Christian Salvati and Edsel Ramirez, is built out of six recycled 45-foot long corrugated steel boxes, the kind that carry cargo around the world on ocean-going ships.
It’s an experiment in a new kind of low-cost, green construction, Salvati said as he stood in front of the new house. Making buildings out of recycled shipping containers is efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly, he said.
The house on Vernon Street is the first of what Salvati said he hopes will be many buildings his company, Marengo Structures, will put together with shipping containers. The Hill building cost $360,000, Salvati said. The cost will decrease substantially with subsequent buildings, especially larger ones, where an economy of scale will kick in, he said.
Salvati, who lives in New York, said he chose New Haven for his prototype because of the possibilities available in the city: the student population of renters, the room to experiment.
“I think it’s a pat on the back for New Haven,” said Evan Trachten, a Livable City Initiative staffer who helped shepherd Salvati’s project through various city departments. “I hope he finds other sites in the city. ... He’s here because of everything New Haven is.”
“A Good Spot”
Setting the six pre-cut shipping containers into place took less than four hours Monday morning—about half the time expected. The containers were hauled in on flatbed trucks, then lowered into place with a crane.
Salvati said he worked with a New Haven container company to cut holes for windows and doors in the exterior walls of the shipping containers, and to cut out interior walls to create rooms when the containers are stacked together. He declined to name the local company he worked with. He said he’s invested so much time developing the fabrication process with the container company that he doesn’t want a competitor to swoop in.
The shipping containers, which are slightly longer than the standard size, are painted white on the inside and gray on the outside. The front of the building will be fitted with a facade to make the building match neighborhood houses and “gel with the existing urban fabric,” Salvati said. The gray container walls will still be visible on the back and sides.
Inside, the house will look like any other, with sheetrock walls and ceilings, Salvati said. The floors will be poured and polished concrete. From the inside, you’d never know you were living in a steel box, he said.
The house will be ready for its first tenants by January, Salvati said.
As he spoke, Counsel, who’s lived on the street for 20 years, stopped by with his question about rust.
The shipping containers are made from steel that’s designed to oxidize, not to rust, Salvati said. The steel develops a “patina” of oxidization, but the underlying metal is sound, he said.
“So hopefully it will last forever,” Counsel said.
“It will last longer than the neighborhood,” Salvati said.
But what about heating and cooling? Counsel asked. He said he has a steel storage container that’s freezing inside in the winter and broiling in the summer.
Baseboard hot water heaters will heat the house, the windows are sized to accommodate air conditioners, and the house will have ventilators and ceiling fans, Salvati said. It won’t be like living in a steel storage unit, he said. The walls will be insulated with six inches of closed-cell soy-based sprayed cellulose.
“I’m sure you’ve done your homework,” Counsel said. He said he’s happy with the new house on his block, as long as Salvati finds some good tenants. “I like the idea.”
“I think you picked a good spot,” Counsel said. “Based on the hospital and everything.” The new house is just a couple blocks from Yale-New Haven Hospital.
The address was an empty lot when Salvati bought it last July for $22,500 from Hill Development Corporation, according to an online database.
Salvati said he’s hoping to rent the building to graduate students who will appreciate fashion-forward design and be too busy to throw wild parties.
He said he has no plans to sell the building. That’s partly because he wants to keep track of how the building ages, but also: “It’s my first baby!”
“Out Of Our Heads”
The “baby” is the product of an extended pregnancy.
Four years ago, a former Cornell architecture school classmate of Salvati and Ramirez approached the pair with a possible assignment: A Spanish company wanted to build a transportable hotel that would fit in six shipping containers. The job never came to fruition, but it triggered a bout of “obsessive” research by Salvati.
He found that the Dutch—titans of the shipping industry—have been building with shipping containers for 30 years. “We started studying their concepts,” Salvati said.
The architect, who’s now 36, said he and Ramirez, who’s 38, first went to New Orleans to pitch a shipping container house there. They figured it could be an efficient and inexpensive way to help rebuild after Katrina. But the pair couldn’t find any traction there, despite hiding their Yankee roots by naming their company after a street in the Big Easy.
“No one would call us back,” Salvati said.
Salvati said he encountered a lot of that in the early days of Marengo Structures. “People thought we were out of our heads,’ he said.
It was a challenge to find a builder who would take on the task of container-based construction. “I went through a lot of contractors,” Salvati said. They would all ask, “Why aren’t you building with wood?”
Salvati eventually decided he needed to be able to talk finances, to convince the skeptical. “No one trusts architects when it comes to numbers,” he said. He entered an MBA program in Madrid and came out with an award-winning business plan for his new company and the ability to discuss CAGRs and IRRs with confidence. He landed some investors and began making moves in New Haven.
Salvati said his next goal is to build another house, in less time and for less money. Then he said he’d like to make an apartment building, maybe as high as eight stories, and maybe in New Haven.