Ship Shape

Ship Shape

Recycling used shipping containers into a modern home.

In the backwoods outside Springfield, Mo., 65-year-old Marti Montgomery is building a house out of shipping containers. The irony of a modest, minimalist home built from the very containers used to feed American consumerism is not lost on her. "I think that we're doing the world a favor by using up the surplus of containers that we have in this country," she says.

Still, Montgomery did not start out with such high-minded ideals. She simply wanted an affordable, sustainable home that would take advantage of her view of the James River and blend into her 48-acres of unspoiled land in rural Missouri. She soon discovered Workshop 308, a local architectural firm that embraces a modern, environmentally conscious design philosophy.

"I just wandered in there one day and said 'I would like to build a house that's modern and I have $150,000 dollars to spend. I'd like it to look like it fits with the surroundings and has concrete floors, a lot of glass and maybe metal siding,'" Montgomery recollects. "And they knew exactly what I was talking about."

Unfortunately, the firm's initial design did not fit within Montgomery's strict budget. As a cost-saving measure, she and architects Jason Mitchell and Michael Mardis hit upon the idea of using shipping containers for the infrastructure of the house. Mitchell says using the containers results in a 40 percent cost savings over standard stick-frame construction. Plus, he says, the sturdiness of the containers is an asset in a tornado-prone area like Missouri.

Both Mitchell and Montgomery compare the process of designing the 1,300-square-foot home to working with LEGOs. "You have all these little squares and you sit down with a piece of paper and see what kind of shape you can come up with," Montgomery says. The hardest part of the process, Mitchell says, was convincing subcontractors that the design was sound. But once construction began, the advantages of working with the containers became apparent. Four containers were delivered 24 hours after they were ordered from ConGlobal Industries in Memphis, Tenn. After a week of retrofitting the containers and installing the foundation piers on the steep bluff that is the home site, it took only three hours to place and secure the containers.

The unique dimensions of the containers had to be considered in the design. Mitchell says lots of natural light and ventilation make the home feel less industrial. Recessed lighting and spray-foam insulation help offset the low ceilings and thin walls. Sustainable features of the home include solar water heaters, hydronic radiant heat flooring and energy-efficient windows and skylights.

Montgomery, who expects to move into her new home this spring, says she has been thrilled by the unconventional homebuilding experience. "It's fun, it's creative and I would recommend it to anyone!"