The seven-story structure will be fashioned largely from recycled steel shipping containers, those trailer-sized units that cross oceans on cargo ships and are stacked at ports and railroad yards around the world. Architects in the emerging field of shipping-container housing believe it will be the first building of its kind in Utah and the tallest such structure in the nation.
Called City Center Lofts, the building will occupy the site of the 337 Project, the graffiti-covered building at 337 S. 400 East that became a blank canvas last spring for 150 Utah artists and is slated to be demolished Saturday. Developer Adam Price says he was inspired by the creative energy of 337 in conceiving the new condo building, which will house an as-yet-unnamed nonprofit arts group on its ground floor.
"The use of repurposed shipping containers to build the [lofts] is very much in the spirit of the 337 Project," says Price, an attorney who owns the property with his wife Dessi Price, a graphic designer. The City Center Lofts will preserve aspects of 337, such as a gallery space and panels for artists' murals on the face of the building, he said. The building is scheduled to be completed in March 2009.
Why shipping containers? Because the United States imports more goods than it exports, and because it's cheaper to manufacture new cargo containers overseas than send them back empty, millions of the surplus containers sit rusting in American shipyards. They are sold at scrap-steel prices - about $1,000-$3,000 apiece - which makes them affordable and environmentally friendly as construction materials, architects say.
Designed to be stacked up to nine high on freighters without toppling in heavy seas, the containers fit together like enormous Lego bricks, which makes construction quick. Their rugged steel walls also make them durable, termite-proof and fire-resistant.
"They're practically bomb-proof, they're so strong," Price says. "They're architecturally exciting. They have a wonderfully post-industrial feel about them. And we're making use of something nobody wants."
Architects have been designing affordable modular housing with shipping containers for more than a decade, mostly in Europe, although the practice is still rare. David Cross, co-founder of SG Blocks, a St. Louis-based company that specializes in building with the containers, estimates that fewer than three dozen container dwellings in the United States have been approved and built.
"Residential design using shipping containers. . .is still a novel approach anywhere in the country," says Elizabeth Mitchell, director of the Utah chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "You're re-using all the energy and raw materials that went into creating the shipping container rather than using new materials - it's an element of sustainable design. But the architects who get into this are mostly intrigued, I think, by the aesthetic challenge of taking something industrial in appearance and transforming it into a place someone would want to call home."
The lead creative force behind City Center Lofts is New Jersey architect Adam Kalkin, whose work was described in a New York Times profile as "somewhere between performance art and architecture." Kalkin made a splash in the design world three years ago with his Push-Button House, a shipping container with motorized walls that unfolded like a Murphy bed. His firm, Quick-Build, manufactures 2,000-square-foot, prefab container homes for $184,000, plus shipping.
"There's no limitation with what you can do with a basic [container] unit," says Kalkin, who will customize the containers - cutting out walls, windows and doorways - at his New Jersey factory before shipping them to Utah. Kalkin buys most of his cargo containers from shipyards in Newark. "They're kind of like found objects," he says. "I like taking something out of its context and using it in another context."
The City Center Lofts will contain eight residential condo units of varying sizes, one of them a penthouse. Prices for the units haven't been set. Orange shipping containers will be stacked on alternating stories with steel-and-glass frames inbetween. A standard unit will be three containers wide - about 24 feet - with finished (not exposed steel) walls, concrete floors, energy-efficient windows and radiant heat. Half the building, by weight, will be constructed from recycled materials, Price says.
The Prices, who will occupy one of the lofts, worry that some neighbors may consider the building too tall for the block. But they hope most city residents will embrace it as a colorful architectural landmark. Those who have seen sketches of the proposed building are often surprised by its unorthodox design.
"I just wonder if he can get away with this bold look," said Tom Mutter, chair of the Central City Neighborhood Council. Mutter said he likes the building's appearance but questioned whether the neighborhood's older residents will feel the same way. "This [design] is quite unique," he said. "A lot of people may have a heart attack when they see this."