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July 28, 2014
A new wave of buildings cannot be contained

'Cargotecture' adopted for efficient, modular space

PHOTo / Amber Waterman
PHOTo / Amber Waterman
Chad Walton founded SnapSpace Solutions in Brewer to convert the nation's surplus of shipping containers into homes, offices and retail space. In three years, SnapSpace expanded its own site from 4,500 square feet to 126,000 square feet.
PHOTos / Courtesy SnapSpace Solutions
SnapSpace has refashioned shipping containers into office space for companies, like this one for a Houlton trucking firm, that want additional space at a lower cost.
PHOTos / Courtesy SnapSpace Solutions
A house boat designed for boatbuilder Steve White has radiant-heat floors and other unexpected amentiies, not to mention being situated on Belfast’s harbor.
PHOTos / Courtesy SnapSpace Solutions
A smoothie stand was created from a shipping container, outfitted at SnapSpace’s headquarters and taken by truck to its permanent location.

Fancy an office or home that pops out of the box, ready to "plug and play?" A new architectural trend in Maine is the box.

Shipping containers — those neatly stackable, heavy-gauge, corrugated steel units on ships, loaded with goods destined for ports around the world — are strong and ready to convert to a home, office space, extra storage or even a smoothie stand. On the factory floor, they are wired, plumbed, dry-walled, insulated, painted and finished to the buyer's specification.

One business opting for this new, modular style of construction is Westar Trucking in Houlton. A year ago, Westar had SnapSpace Solutions of Brewer design and build an office building fashioned from four shipping containers. The building included two central office spaces, four private offices, two kitchenettes, 1.5 bathrooms and a common space with a second-story outside deck.

"They chose this type of construction for its flexibility and speed of construction," says SnapSpace founder Chad Walton.

"It is a nice, efficient and fast way to build. It's warm and well-insulated," says Westar dispatcher-and-broker Larry Ross. "We get some terrible weather in Maine, and this really was an enticement. There's no draft, and they're almost soundproof. It went up quickly, and there was very little site prep needed."

SnapSpace, which was launched by Walton in 2011, today is based in a 126,000-square-foot plant — not in a building made of shipping containers, but in Brewer's former Lemforder Corp. manufacturing site.

From there, SnapSpace uses local labor and subcontractors for in-house fabrication. Walton also operates Turbine Specialists out of the same building, finishing turbine blades for the power generation business.

In the early days, SnapSpace occupied a 4,500-square-foot former steel construction building in Bangor. Walton got his idea for SnapSpace when, needing more space for container fabrication, he joined five containers to the existing building, and increased the footprint, all with little hassle.

"It was a temporary space, and it was a very simple expansion to do," Walton says.

After the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, Walton starting thinking about using containers as alternatives to emergency mobile homes — better, he says, because they are storm-proof.

"Compare storm-proof containers to mobile homes, and the difference in durability is vast," he says.

Also, he says, a complex of shipping containers takes a single utility hookup, compared to a mobile home complex needing one hookup per home. Walton presented the idea to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In March 2011, SnapSpace landed its first official container project, for the Eastport Port Authority. The port's contractor, Hershey Equipment, sought a contractor to build two facilities. The buildings had to be robust, low-maintenance, and suitable for the windy marine environment. The control space had to fit on top of a rock ledge, overlooking the port. SnapSpace fulfilled the requirements with two container projects, 20 feet and 40 feet, respectively, customized at the SnapSpace plant and transported to Eastport.

Standardized shipping containers date to 1956, according to the World Shipping Council, which is based in Washington, D.C. For thousands of years previously, "break-bulk" shipping used barrels, sacks and wooden crates. A North Carolina trucking entrepreneur changed all that when he reinforced the deck of a World War II tanker to transport 58 metal boxes from Newark, N.J., to Houston, Texas. Transportation industries quickly adapted. Today, millions of containers travel the world.

However, a large portion entering domestic ports never leave, due to lopsided import/export ratios. "If you import, say, computers from Japan, and there's nothing to ship back out, the containers sit there empty," says Walton. Walton gets his containers from New Jersey, at an average of $3,500 each, plus freight.

To convert a shipping container to a finished home costs about $77 per square foot, versus the $130-plus for conventional building, Walton says. Part of the savings is due to the efficiency of constructing the project in a controlled environment. One crew cuts and frames out window and door openings, while other crews install drywall, studs, wiring, plumbing, sprayfoam-insulation and handle exterior improvements.

"We like our units to show up so that you could literally snap them together, or plug and play," Walton says.

"Cargotecture," as it's called, does pose challenges.

"Once you cut and weld steel, it's difficult to change something, unlike wood construction," Walton says. "Also, there are a lot of variations in the containers if you're mating two containers. It's like parking a Chevy beside a Ford. The difference between manufacturers can be significant. "

Then there's consumer perception. "Can you picture living in a container? Once you've experienced being in one, it's a whole different story," Walton says. "The main issue is educating consumers on the viability of the shipping container home."

Cargotecture is popping up around the world. Las Vegas has Container City. In San Francisco, a cargotecture development includes a high-end clothing store, coffee shop, ice-cream parlor and beer garden.

Maine reflects that trend. SnapSpace created a two-unit bunkhouse for the Bangor-based land management company Northwoods Management, which uses the bunkhouse at a North Woods logging site. The structure is equipped with four two-tier bunks, kitchen, two bathrooms, and living room. The logging camp complex is otherwise stocked with mobile homes, where the crew sleeps because it's too far to commute every day. According to Christine Hodgdon, at Northwoods' Bangor office, "This was something new and different, so we decided to try it."

In Portland, the Maine Port Authority commissioned a one-container building to house an office and employee locker room at the Eimskip terminal.

"The choice of a container was mostly a cost-savings decision," says Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw. The unit came complete from the factory, requiring only a hookup to the pier's power source.

At Maine Trailer's site in Hampden, SnapSpace customized one 40-foot container with three roll-up doors. A second container of the same size was converted to an office with adjacent storage space for tools and other equipment.

Recently, Walton's crew completed a U.S. Cellular tower in Pittsfield. Located behind an old brick schoolhouse-turned-office building, the design includes an upended container atop a horizontal unit, topped by a shuttered cupola containing communications equipment. Brick siding matches the school.

In Belfast, the SnapSpace crew used two 40-foot containers to construct a houseboat for Front Street Shipyard co-owner Steve White. The house sits on a custom-built barge on the waterfront.

SnapSpace has also created an emergency housing unit designed to resemble conventional construction, complete with vinyl siding and a pitched, steel roof.

"We can build one house every eight hours in full production," Walton says. "This is presently an in-house unit that people can walk in and get a feel for."

SnapSpace is also attracting attention outside Maine. A 20-foot smoothie bar, with two rolling doors, went to a Montreal amusement park. A concession stand with attached restrooms is destined for a Bethlehem, Pa., skateboard park.

"It will be the first container building, that I know of, that will have a curved outside wall on it," Walton says.

He's received inquiries about multiple-housing complexes, including a 2,000-unit assisted-living facility, and office space from around the United States, Canada and beyond. A company in Dubai asked about armor-plated offices. Walton sent ballistics-proof specs to Colombia, where pipeline crews are targets in rebel-held territory.

Individual homeowners are finding their own way to cargotecture. Houseboat owner White was inspired by a 12-container Brooklin house designed by architect Adam Kalkin.

Outside Ellsworth, Jen Sansosti and Trevor Seip are building a home out of two, 40-foot shipping containers. The artist/graphic designer and carpenter bought the containers on eBay. The pair moved to Maine in 2011 to homestead and have already outfitted their 63-acre property with a garden, chicken coop, irrigation pond, solar panels. While they work on their permanent home, they're living in a recreational vehicle.

The containers are welded together and set on a concrete slab. Heating costs are reduced with spray-foam insulation. Power is supplemented with an array of solar panels. The whole thing complies with local zoning restrictions.

"It's a freestanding, windproof and watertight box that's modular, fireproof, universally transportable, and pest-resistant," Seip says. "You can't find another type of shelter that you feel safer in. A storm will be blasting up here. You step in and shut the door, and you feel that solid, monolithic security."

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