Experimental Hill Home In “Ship” Shape

Thomas MacMillan PhotoAs 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”

Christian Salvati PhotoSetting 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.

Marengo StructuresThe 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.

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on September 22, 2011  4:17pm

All very cool EXCEPT the false-front Mansard roof, which is tacky in the extreme and has no function.  It’s certainly not needed to harmonize with the house next door, which appears to have a flat roof.

posted by: Irish Mike on September 22, 2011  4:26pm

$360,000 for a shipping container house…who do I make the check payable to? LOL I hope that is a typo. $36,000 sounds more realistic.

I like the idea…but the costs are going to have to come way down.

posted by: Karen on September 22, 2011  4:55pm

This sounds like a real good idea. It shows that people are still thinking of ways to house people.
I am interested to find out how low the pricing will go to build one of these.

posted by: NH Resident on September 22, 2011  4:59pm

I agree with Gretchen. Interesting idea, but the front facade looks ridiculous! The house is made out of containers. That should be celebrated, not hidden.

posted by: davecoon on September 22, 2011  5:01pm

So much cooler than the other house touted on these pages a couple of days ago!
I agree with Ms. Pritchard, however, let it be what it is.  No need to dress it up with an artificial false-front.

posted by: Eva on September 22, 2011  5:29pm

I’ve been reading about shipping container houses for several years and find them really interesting. It’d be fun to visit this place when it’s all set up. But I have to add that I agree with previous posters—not sure why the architect felt it was necessary to add that facade and roof line. On one hand, I admire his trying to blend the building into the neighborhood, but the way it’s shown in the picture just seems kind of silly. Perhaps he’ll change his mind and just let it be, or devise a compromise (painted front of building to allow some blending but no roof weirdness)?

posted by: Anymouse on September 22, 2011  6:08pm

Looks like two double wide trailers stacked on top of each other with an oversized barbie dream house facade.  Nothing more than a square quonset hut.  Do you get any cell reception in that thing?  And rust IS oxidation.  It’s why they paint sea crates and metal boats constantly.

Glad to see folk innovating, but I don’t see the advantage of this design unless a small army of zombie rhinos are attacking.  Is lumber still not cheaper and renewable?

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 22, 2011  7:42pm

Irish Mike,

You’re in Luck!
There are starter condos available at the nearest Self-Storage Complex.

posted by: Curious on September 22, 2011  7:55pm

Maybe it’ll be bulletproof, that would be perfect for New Haven.

posted by: chingy01 on September 22, 2011  9:22pm

add some bullet-proof glass and a steel door and this design will be prime for new haven

posted by: westvillelocal on September 22, 2011  10:04pm

Should fair better with the gunshots than the yale house. Since its made of steel.

posted by: robn on September 23, 2011  12:54am

Doesn’t reducing habitat to living in shipping containers make us like product????only we’re paying to be product like?

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.” Lloyd Dobler

posted by: silk.screen.printing@snet.net on September 23, 2011  8:21am

Why is it that when our auto mfg. decide to build a gas efficient gas, they make it look like it’s from outer space, with one wheel in front and door’s that open in the front?

This is one awful looking house. Is this the best we can do? It looks like a shipping container!

posted by: Curious on September 23, 2011  8:26am

...but seriously, why paint it and make it look like a normal wooden house? Why not let it look cool and futuristic?

posted by: Stephen Harris on September 23, 2011  8:44am

@ Gretchen Pritchard

He had to add the roof facade (like western movie-towns) to get it past the BZA. In this climate a regular pitched roof would distribute the snow load better and provide attic space.

The idea is interesting and an economy of scale should make them affordable. Holland does a lot of this sort of thing. Some designs are truly wacky (which Yale would like) and some are tasteful.

posted by: VD on September 23, 2011  9:16am

I can’t believe in this climate that someone would deliberately put a flat roof on a house.  Can you imagine last winter with that roof?  Plus, that facade thing would actually trap snow behind it.

Best in thread: Anymouse.  Thanks for the morning laugh.  For $360,000 you too can own double wide trailers stacked on top of each other with an oversized barbie dream house facade, capable of repelling attacking rhinos.

Get your tetanus shot before moving in.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on September 23, 2011  9:37am

“Looks like two double wide trailers stacked on top of each other with an oversized barbie dream house facade.  Nothing more than a square quonset hut.  Do you get any cell reception in that thing?  And rust IS oxidation.”

Anonymouse for the win!

posted by: jennifer Stockwell on September 23, 2011  10:38am

@gretchen: I completely agree! why put this false front on to make it seem architecturally like something it is not (and is pretty wretched looking) when you could embrace what it is.

posted by: terrapin on September 23, 2011  11:31pm

Are we really short of two and three family homes in New Haven? How about taking that money and rehabbing a bunch of the vacant and blighted homes that are right in the neighborhood? New Haven was knocking down vacant buildings in better economic times than this, due to the lack of demand and overly dense development in some of the inner city neighborhoods.

posted by: terrapin on September 23, 2011  11:35pm

By the way, wasn’t “patina of oxidation” how they described the exterior of the late lamented Veterans Memorial Coliseum?

posted by: W.W. on September 24, 2011  4:49pm

This building concept is nothing new the west coast builders have been using containers for years Salvati & Ramirez are trying to make a name for themselves or did they read Dwell Magazine recently. Why not put up a Yurt The cost for the structure high end type would cost only about $48,000 plus property.

posted by: Ianna on September 29, 2011  5:27am

some will always find ways to go about re-constructing! :-) i just feel like stopping, and behind the crazy frenzy we all love, find peace of mind in a house, home, hearth that hey! makes a lot of sense.