Group 41 Accepts Commission to Create Proposal for Multifamily Community from Shipping Containers

By Erika Schnitzer, Associate Editor Salt Lake City—San Francisco-based architecture firm Group 41 is breaking new ground with a shipping container design for multifamily development. The proposal is for a 200-unit, market-rate transit-oriented community in Salt Lake City.“For years, we put out a formal offer of discounted design services for anyone who was serious about wanting me to design a single-family home [from shipping containers]. I talked to hundreds of people, but not a single one turned into a real project,” says Joel Karr, founder and principal, Group 41. “People are intrigued by the idea but are resistant to trying something unfamiliar, which is the major challenge I face with this project.”Karr notes, however, that the concept is not a new idea. In fact, he admits, “we literally trail the world on this particular idea, and for whatever reason, people in the U.S. are reluctant to really push this building technology.”  He points to Keetwonen, a 1,000-unit student housing community in Amsterdam, as well as hotels in England and a museum in Osaka, Japan as examples. The shipping containers “are designed to be loaded with 40,000 pounds and to be stacked eight-high,” notes Karr, adding that this is more than four times that of any local building code’s requirement for structural integrity. In addition, 9-ft. ceilings can be created using high-cube containers, which are taller than standard containers.The challenge to using containers as housing units, however, is that the containers’ modularity, while providing flexibility in terms of unit configuration, places constraints on the space’s comfort. In addition, gathering enough containers for a large-scale multi-housing situation can prove challenging. “The idea of upcycling (using waste as a new product) for a single-family home or small project is fairly easy to implement, but once you are [needing to procure] several hundred, it’s a logistical challenge,” Karr tells MHN. But, he adds, “It is one of the greenest responses you can take to building technology—it’s socially responsible, it’s economical.” For the 4.5-acre Salt Lake City project, Group 41 and its client is working with ICL (International Container Leasing), an international organization that regulates the container leasing market, to develop its RFP and a list of vendors to procure the containers and get them to the site.Preliminary local planning approvals are expected by the summer of 2009. If approved, Karr expects that the project could be in the ground by early 2010, with an 18-month construction schedule planned.Units would be comprised of at least two containers for studio apartments, resulting in a need for at least 1,000 shipping containers for the entire project, which, in its current design scheme, would be six stories of residential sitting atop a concrete commercial base that would include retail and parking.Group 41’s client, commercial developers, were interested in the container design for a number of reasons, including the “cost savings aspect of using pre-manufactured square footage, which, in raw material, is 60 to 80 cents per square foot constructed space. Compared to a more traditional structure, it’s dramatically less expensive to create a basic structure,” says Karr.In addition to his work on the Salt Lake City design, Karr has submitted “Container Nation,” as the entire concept is currently called, to Google’s 10 to the 100th competition—a call for ideas to change the world. The submission demonstrates how used shipping containers can be repurposed as emergency and homeless housing around the world.“It’s such a no-brainer. [The containers] are designed to be distributed worldwide,” says Karr, adding that he hopes to identify housing developers interested in pursuing such a project with him.