The developer behind an innovative Salt Lake City apartment building made of recycled shipping containers says the Box 500 project “has a bright future.”
Work on the experiment in stacking containers six stories high in Lego-like fashion to create low-cost housing began in early 2020 after two years of talks with the city, but its completion has been delayed repeatedly due to supply-chain problems and concerns from building inspectors.
Rod Newman, owner of Eco Box Fabricators and the project’s main driver, said recently the compact metal complex and its 84 affordable units located at 543 S. 500 West are more than 90% finished, although almost a year or more behind schedule.
Box 500 Apartments is now expected to open for renters in the first months of next year, offering dwellings at rents well below the city’s market rates, with studio, one- and two-bedroom units going for between $829 and $1,204 a month.
“I’m excited,” Newman said, “for the future of this project.”
While discarded shipping containers have been deployed in Utah’s capital for smaller housing and office construction, including a variety of accessory dwellings, Box 500 Apartments is a first foray into what’s called “cargotecture” at six stories.
In fact, according to Newman, it may be among the tallest buildings in the world made from the ubiquitous metal boxes used worldwide for shipping goods.
And its implications, he said, stretch well beyond one project.
Despite major cost overruns and no shortage of administrative headaches, the developer said Box 500 Apartments has produced a robust model for similar construction at lower heights that could help fill Utah’s dire need for more affordable homes.
He said his Salt Lake City-based company was already bidding to be part of several other developments, including a new vision for remaking the city-owned Fleet Block, located between 300 West and 400 West from 800 South to 900 South.
“Our soft spot right now is four stories and under,” Newman said. “You don’t need elevators and all the other things that slow you down and aren’t cost effective for affordable housing.”
Hitches due to supply shortages, safety concerns
Orion Goff, deputy director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, said the city has worked diligently to ensure Box 500 Apartments met fire safety, seismic and other standards before and during construction.
“As this specific design has not been attempted elsewhere before,” Goff said, “there were many unique challenges, both structurally and fire- and life-safety-related.
“We believe that the effort to bring this unique project to market is replicable,” he added. “The design certainly provides a very earthquake- and wind-resistant structure.”
Working through fire concerns in the building’s design, including the structure’s exits and its sprinkler system, was part of what initially slowed granting the project a building permit, city staffers said at the time.
The city also waived impact fees on the residential development, Newman said, as part of creating apartments affordable to those making 60% of the region’s median incomes.
Records indicate inspectors then intervened several times as construction proceeded during the past year, requiring less combustible alternatives to flooring materials and to sheathing used in the stairs and elevator system.
Inspectors rejected a laminant material and a type of board that crews had used to attach the structure’s roof, Newman said. “I actually had to take the entire roof off and redo it.”
Several of the city’s concerns led to monthslong delays and boosted costs, Newman said, compounded by intermittent problems getting key materials delivered to the work site as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply lines, including the elevator.
Prices on shipping containers themselves also grew volatile during the worst of the worldwide supply crisis, Newman added, though they’ve since “settled back down to about the $6,000 range.”
Reshaping some of the dwellings before opening
Though he praised the city for its collaborative work on ensuring safety, Newman said concerns about fire have been overblown, largely because of the impenetrable nature of shipping containers themselves.
“If you have a fire on that exterior,” he said, “it’s not going to penetrate the interior.”
“You’re not going to have a Sugar House fire,” Newman said, referring to the October blaze that decimated The Residences at Sugar Alley, 2188 S. Highland Drive, just as crews neared completion of the 186-unit apartment complex in the heart of the east-side neighborhood.
Though Box 500 is nearly finished, Eco Box Fabricators recently submitted a new round of plan modifications for some of the building’s dwellings for city approval. Those changes, Newman said, “will better serve the low-income population of Salt Lake” by downsizing some of the one-bedroom apartments to make more units.
“We didn’t realize the demand for smaller units or I would have done it a lot differently,” he said of Box 500′s living quarters, with studio apartments at 320 square feet and one- and two-bedroom rentals averaging 640 square feet.
The latest floor plan modifications, Newman said, “are going to be very easy” and the project remains on track to open by early spring.
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