Packing new housing ideas into small spaces

HARTFORD, Conn. — Most of the two- and three-family houses lining Vernon Street in New Haven, Conn., were built in the early 1900s and look like those constructed during the same era in any other city in Connecticut: spacious front porches, flat or pitched roofs and walk-out bay windows.

So architecturally, the house now going up on a vacant lot at 56 Vernon will have plenty of curb appeal, blending perfectly into the neighborhood — with one notable exception: It is about as far as a builder can get from traditional wood-frame construction.

The frame of the two-family house was fashioned by stacking and welding together six steel shipping containers — yes, those 45-footers that are hoisted onto sea-going vessels or loaded onto 18-wheeler flatbeds — three, side-by-side, for each floor. The interior walls of the containers are being carved out to make way for kitchens, living rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms.

Architect Christian E. Salvati is making no effort to hide his unconventional building material, either. While the facade will reflect a traditional, Second Empire-style design with mansard roof, the exterior side walls will leave exposed the ruffled, battleship-gray surface of the shipping containers.

"The sides being exposed embrace the concept of the container," Salvati, a New York architect, said.

Some neighbors on the street don't exactly know what to make of it because right now it looks like, well, stacked shipping containers.

"I've never seen a house like that," said next-door neighbor Andres Marrero, who has lived on the street for nearly 30 years. "It doesn't look like a house. But I'll have to wait to see when it is finished."

Salvati isn't deterred by such reactions — in fact, he is used to them by now.

When he pitched his plan to city hall in New Haven — hoping to get help from the city in securing a building lot — he encountered a lot of puzzled looks.

"I had to convince them, 'No, I'm not crazy,' " Salvati, 36, said. "I've had to educate people on what I'm doing."

New Haven housing officials say they are supportive of Salvati's house because it is a consummate green building project, starting with the reuse of the shipping containers, right down to energy-efficient heating systems.

"He's totally in touch with the architectural movement and the green movement," Evan Trachten, acquisition and disposition coordinator for New Haven's Liveable Cities Initiatives. "It's modern, very creative and responsible."

But the city also was wary of investing in such an unconventional approach to building right out of the, er, box.

"On some level, people who are involved in housing in New Haven weren't comfortable with being involved with some beta test product," Trachten said. "We encouraged him to do it on his own, and then we could talk about future opportunities. It has to not only be a superior product, but cost-effective."

This isn't the first time a builder has tried to use shipping containers as building blocks, but most of those efforts have been concentrated in Europe, particularly in The Netherlands.

In the United States, the projects have been far fewer, mostly on the West Coast, according to the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association, which tracks construction using shipping containers. The industry is still fledgling but growing — with perhaps 1,000 units on the drawing board in the next year in this country and Canada — and Salvati hopes to carve out a share in the market.

Salvati's project is believed to be the first of its kind in Connecticut, although there have been instances of containers converted illegally, violating zoning regulations, often without electricity or running water.

"Some have said we are not doing anything new," Salvati said. "This is correct. However, the other companies, primarily in Europe, that have developed buildings using this technology are not sharing their knowledge. It is their competitive advantage."

Adam Hopfner of the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven said the shipping containers represent an intriguing take on construction building blocks that challenge the building conventions of structural studs being positioned every 16 inches.

"Is it the silver bullet of building? No," said Hopfner, who directs a program at the school which designs and builds a new house every year on vacant lots in New Haven. "Is it a clever use on retake? Yes. It's quite clever."

The house now under construction at 56 Vernon is the realization of Salvati's final thesis that earned him a master's of business administration in late 2009 at IE Business School in Madrid. The MBA gave Salvati the skills to finance the projects he envisioned as an architect who earned his degree at Cornell University, he says.

His company — Marengo Structures, founded in 2009 with a friend from Cornell, Miguel Ardid — is focusing solely on dwellings made from shipping containers. He first became intrigued with the potential for the containers in 2007 after a client in Spain hired Salvati and another architect to design a "moveable" luxury hotel that would be transported in the containers. (That project didn't work out.)

But Salvati couldn't stop thinking about the containers and the strength they would provide in housing construction.

Salvati and Ardid chose New Haven because land was still relatively inexpensive and it had a reputation for welcoming urban revitalization projects. And with a university and research hospital at the city's core, it had the right feel for being open to new, radical concepts, Salvati said.

What the partners are now building is essentially a prototype. They are sharing an estimated $360,000 in costs for the 2,000-square-foot structure, a figure they hope will go down as they gain more experience building with the containers. Costs also have been pushed up because, for instance, Salvati is testing out two different heating systems, one for each floor.

Potential investors — more than 30 were approached — were too skittish to sign on without their being a track record.

"What always seemed to be the last question was: 'Have you ever done it before?' " Salvati said. "I ended up taking a loan from parents."

Despite that hesitation, Salvati sees the student population in New Haven providing strong demand. And if the state's vision for a "research triangle" comes to fruition, there could be significantly more demand for new housing in the area, Salvati said.

"We are striving to establish ourselves within the New Haven market," Salvati said, "and then hope to be able to branch out throughout the Northeast and other markets."

Shipping containers are cheap, at $5,000 a piece, and have the potential to provide an incredibly strong frame for a building.

But won't the steel be hot in the summer?

Not so, says Salvati. The exterior walls of the apartment units will be cushioned with 5 inches of special eco-friendly spray foam insulation manufactured in Westport, Conn.

"The building," Salvati said, "won't heat up any more than a traditional building."

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