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From the seas to Salt Lake: shipping container finds a home

Published June 28, 2012 10:25 am

Sarah House Project's first house to be complete this summer.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

He's a man with a plan and more than a few "cans" — Jeff White's word for the abandoned shipping containers he is working to transform into model affordable homes.

Turning that vision into reality hasn't been easy, but, six years after he first pitched the idea, White's first container home just moved to a permanent mooring on a narrow west-side lot. After being retired from its life of ferrying "soft goods" across the sea, the container is being reborn as a 640-square-foot green home, perfect in scale and price for a senior citizen or low-income adult.

"I'm as nervous as Nellie about what the public will perceive of this," White said. "I hope people like it and appreciate the volunteer work we've done on this for so many years. I've dreamed about it, knocked on enough doors about it."

And now it is finally taking shape. The home's shell is actually two 40-foot-long containers that were welded together after removal of one long wall from each bin. White hopes to complete the finishing work — putting in walls, sliding doors, floors, cabinets, appliances, etc. — within the next 45 days.

"We're relying heavily on volunteer labor because people want to be involved with it," he said.

When complete, the home will feature a galley kitchen, living area, office room that doubles as a second bedroom, utility room, bathroom and master bedroom. A roof and siding will be added to the exterior. White is using "green" materials — from high-efficiency appliances to soy-based insulation — as much as possible.

"It's not going to look like a container," White said.

The genesis of White's idea was a San Francisco stone artist named Sarah. She'd been kicked out of her home near the U.S. Naval shipping yards and had no place to go. As White mulled over his friend's dilemma, he took notice of all the shipping containers stacked on the dock.

"And I saw a possibility right then and there for housing and shipping containers and even putting artists in small little places off the streets," White said. "I thought, 'Why not?' "

White, a real-estate agent and longtime volunteer at Crossroads Urban Center, is not the first or only person to come up with the idea of re-purposing shipping containers as usable living space. They've been retrofitted as offices for the U.S. Army in Iraq and in Fort Bragg, N.C.; turned into apartments in the Netherlands; and offered as second-home cabins and emergency shelters by various builders.

In addition to affordable homes, White sees potential in using the steel structures as low-cost homeless shelters and working kiosk-style space for artists.

When he got back to Salt Lake City, White prepared drawings showing how a container could be reconfigured as a home or temporary shelter and took the sketches to architects and designers, trying to kindle interest. He got the same response from everyone: Too expensive to work.

"And I kept saying, 'No, I've got contractor friends, electricians,' " White said. "I was still being told it was too expensive."

So he decided to do it himself, in his driveway.

He invested $4,200 in a 40-foot Evergreen container that once carried grain across the ocean before being deemed no longer seaworthy. He cut the container in half to make it easier to move around and brought it home on a tilt-bed tow truck.

While his Sugar House neighbors were OK with White's project, the city wasn't. He was cited for having an illegal structure on his property.

But that encounter with city hall proved fortuitous. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker dropped by to see what White was doing.

"The city brought me in and said they were impressed with what I was trying to do," he said. "They liked the idea ... but said, 'You can't do it in your driveway anymore.' "

White moved the operation to a storage yard and, after partnering with Crossroads Urban Center, was able to get a $108,000 grant from Salt Lake City to build the Sarah House Project's first container home. He also received a $5,000 donation from a local family; most of the work on the structure has been donated.

He expects the home, which will be open to the public for a time before being sold, to be priced between $108,000 and $115,000.

"It is another way to build affordable housing," said Glenn Bailey, Crossroads director, and "it takes resources that already exist."

There are thousands of abandoned shipping containers around the country, Bailey points out.

The initial concept was to convert the first container into a mother-in-law apartment for an existing property, but that idea was abandoned because of Salt Lake City's heated debate over accessory dwelling units. Instead, Crossroads helped White find a suitable vacant lot owned by the Community Development Corporation.

Once they cleared that hurdle, other bureaucratic snags slowed the project.

"Nobody has seen anything like this before, so we are continually being hit with delays," Bailey said. "It has taken longer than we'd hoped. The city doesn't know quite how to interpret the code."

But it may be smooth sailing now.

"By building this, it lets people know exactly what it takes to make 640 feet [of] living space out of these containers," White said. "It is another part of innovation here in Salt Lake City that we are trying to create. I've got to tell you, it's been actually six years ago out of my driveway to this. It's a dream come true."

Well, almost.

"I think the thing will be seeing the owner in that house with a smile on their face," White said.