October 12, 2012

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Dreams on a Budget

For Marti Montgomery, paradise narrows to the clear water of the James River outside of Rogersville. There, she pushes her red kayak into the James, hunts for rocks along the bank, and invites friends to picnic on a gravel bar that appears in low waters.

“This place has been my therapy, my entertainment, and my dream for where I wanted to live,” says Marti of the stream that flows on her 40-acre property. She lives in a 1,300-square-foot low maintenance home nestled in the woods above the river. A freestanding fireplace and modern sculptures adorn the interior while large windows offer a panorama of the outdoors.

Marti approached two Springfield architects to custom design her dream home in 2007, having collected house plans from the Internet for years. “My plan from the beginning was to make this house simple, inexpensive, and low maintenance,” she says. “It needed to do the least damage to the land and do the site justice. I wanted something unique but not out of place.”

The architects said building what she wanted would exceed her $150,000 budget by $30,000, so Marti dug through the plans she had saved for a house plan built from shipping containers. Made of steel, about 100 million shipping containers crisscross the oceans to move 90 percent of the world’s trade. After 10 to 12 years of use, most end up in major ports like Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Newark, and Miami until someone scraps them for the steel, a church or school or military group acquires them as a cheap storage container, or a container repurposing company purchases them.

“Even if it doesn’t meet shipping container standards anymore, it can still be a good wind-and-water type of container,” John Arnerich, owner of Container Outlet, says. The containers can be used as underground shelters—or as the building blocks for a new home. For Marti, the savings and speed in acquiring them put her dream back on track. She saved 40 percent off the conventional construction cost of her home by using the recycled containers instead, according to Workshop 380 architect Jason Mitchell.

The architects ordered four containers from Memphis: three for Marti’s house and one for an outside carport. Each container is 40 by 8 by 9 feet in volume. Within 24 hours of ordering, Jason and project designer Michael Mardis were cutting doors and windows into the containers. Then it took just three hours for a crane to place the containers on the foundation pilings.

This was the architects’ first container house, and they ran into some unexpected situations. Architects discovered cutting windows into corrugated steel meant they would also have to reinforce the container to keep the roof stable.

Michael coached his general contractors through the learning process. “They had to wrap their heads around the fact these were just pre-made boxes for making a house, not containers,” Michael says. “We had to convince them once there was insulation, studs, and sheet rock, it was just like a normal house.”

Marti insisted on making her new home environmentally responsible. Architects used salvaged parts from a local cedar closet factory to frame the house, ceilings for two porches, and the interior. They also turned what used to be the containers’ sliding doors into bathroom doors and used concrete plus radiant heat pipes to create the floors. Marti added a heat pump and energy-efficient appliances, reducing her electricity bill by a third compared to her previous home—even through two especially brutal Missouri winters. “To call it a regular house is misleading,” Jason says. “But it doesn’t look like a container either.”

From her two porches and the large living room picture window, Marti can watch ice float down the river while eagles and cranes drift over it. “The decoration comes from the outside,” she says. “There’s not a place in the house that you can’t see the woods or the river. That’s the best thing about it.”

October 12, 2012


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