A house of steel: Benton Harbor couple creates house out of two shipping containers

A deck surrounds the rear of a home constructed out of shipping containers. A deck surrounds the rear of a home constructed out of shipping containers. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

A deck surrounds the rear of a home constructed out of shipping containers. A deck surrounds the rear of a home constructed out of shipping containers. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Shane and Vicki Franks wanted to try something new.

Through Shane’s business, GREENSpan Construction, the Franks did just that. In a matter of months the Benton Harbor couple transformed two 45-foot shipping containers into a livable dwelling.

Together, the intermodal steel building units cover about 720 square feet and feature a 600-square-foot deck that wraps around the side to the back in an “L” formation.

Shane said there are a lot of shipping containers turned into small homes, most frequently in Europe. In Las Vegas, there is a $350 million project underway for replicating a small city of container homes.

However, to get a better idea of what kind of undertaking it would be, the Franks took trips to California and Colorado to see some projects that had taken place. From there they brainstormed how to make their own metal-box cabin.

The metal fabrication proved to be the biggest challenge. The metal fab portion took about three weeks to complete. To put that into perspective, the entire project has taken about four months so far.

“We plasma cut this whole center section and welded them together,” Shane said. “Then we put high beams in. The wall sheeting is the strength. When you cut that out, it looses its integrity. There was a lot of steel fabrication that went into it.”

The two shipping containers that now sit in place at 560 Warwick Terrace look completely different inside. Stepping into the box-like home, visitors are welcomed to a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

Vicki said the idea first came about several years ago when her husband bought a few toy models of shipping containers and began stacking them and making different configurations.

Last year, the talks became more serious.

“Our business goes hand-in-hand with this,” Vicki said. “It’s very nice and has modern amenities and other high-class fixtures. We didn’t spare much expense inside. If you didn’t know you were walking into a container, you wouldn’t know you were in one.”

Former shipping containers have been transformed into a house at 560 Warwick Terrace in Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Former shipping containers have been transformed into a house at 560 Warwick Terrace in Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Vicki said the plan is to completely furnish the steel home and turn it into a short-term rental for vacationers. Shane said they also plan on further developments in the future.

“We’re going to do more of them,” he said. “This was an experiment to see if there were any kind of savings versus regular residential. With the size you are allowed to scale things down. It’s popular right now, the whole tiny house thing. You can get the most bang for your buck out of these.”

Prepping a tin house

Despite its size, Shane said it took longer than expected to get through the red tape.

Brooks Architecture completed the design and did a lot of the legwork to make this happen.

That included a lot of communication with the city’s building department. Franks said when they brought the idea to building officials, they had never heard of such a concept and had numerous questions.

“They were kind of questioning why we were going to do this,” Shane said. “We wanted to see what it would cost to do this on a smaller scale. Ultimately, our plan was to build an apartment complex out of them. We had this property back here and we thought we would try this experiment off the beaten path.”

Once everything was approved, it was just a matter of getting the shipping containers to Benton Harbor.

The 2002 used containers came from a shipping yard in Chicago. They were delivered on site, where Shane and others had them craned in place by hassies. The containers were then set onto the foundation, which came with a full crawl space that housed the furnace and water heater.

Other than plasma cutting doors and windows into the sides, not much else was done to the containers – except a fresh coat of paint.

“I don’t mind dents. It has no effect on the building,” Shane said. “We kept a lot of the badging and logos that came on the containers. The address painted on there was made to be the same font (as the badging).”

Those curious how the Franks took their shipping containers and transformed them into a home can attend a walkthrough at 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday as part of a tour Michigan’s Great Sustainable Business Forum is putting together.

Those interested are advised to reserve a time slot in advance at www.mgssbf.org, by calling 269-588-0222, or by emailing info@mgssbf.org.

Tours will cost $5 per Sustainable Business Forum member and $10 for each nonmember.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 5, 2015)

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