Ultimate Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Shipping Containers to Become Modern Detroit Homes

The southeast corner of Rosa Parks and Warren is going from neglected to inspired.

Right now the lot has abandoned, condemned and boarded up homes, with patches charred. Nearly every visible wall has graffiti on it. It's an eyesore for Detroit and the Woodbridge neighborhood. With an elementary school behind these houses and the Boy Scouts of America right across the street, well, abandonment and condemnation aren't exactly an image that instills inspiration for kids walking to and from school.

However, come fall, things will begin to look a little different. And by next summer, they'll look downright modern and Dwell/Wallpaper worthy.

There is a plan in the works that will raze the structures on six plots and replace them with a new idea in living spaces: Shipping containers. Think giant, heavy, metal Legos stacked four high with windows and doors and people living inside of them.

Developer Leslie Horn and her brother, Patrick, are turning forgotten containers into modern, urban, environmentally friendly living spaces -- and doing it right here in Detroit.

The method and material

There are over 700,000 empty containers across the nation, just sitting around, stacked up on top of each other collecting dust. Every day 21,000 of these containers are used to ship pieces and parts for all different kinds of industries across the U.S. and there they stay, waiting for their next fill-up or, in some cases, never used again.

Converting containers into living units has caught fire in places like London, Amsterdam, China, and New Zealand, while the military has been utilizing this technology for some time as soldier barracks or as office space.

The developing duo want to get Detroit in on this newer movement of container living.

The Horns have rehabbed 30 Detroit houses scattered throughout the city in the last three years, and based on their exceptional track record were asked to try their hand on this Rosa Parks block. That's when Leslie got the idea for what they are calling  Exceptional Green Living on Rosa Parks.

"We were invited to clean up the block," Leslie says. "We found that all the (vacant) houses on the corner were filled with crack people."

They spent a few months working in the area before they embarked on their idea with local Woodbridge-based architect firm Steven C. Flum Associates, just around the corner on Trumbull.

"I came here and said 'I have this grand idea and this is what we can do,' " she says. This was about a year and a half ago.

Since then the siblings, along with Flum associate Jason Fowler, an architectural designer, have developed a project that will replace the blight on the corner with a 17-unit container project. The Horns simultaneously started the company The Power of Green Housing to facilitate the process of the development.

Stacked high

Each container isn't one unit, however. The entire development will encompass 93 individual shipping containers, stacked four high (though they can go as high as 12, sustaining 150 mph winds), ranging from studio live/work spaces to three bedroom condos.

"I thought this project was exciting," says Steven Flum, who has been in Detroit for 24 years and designing projects since 1991. "Then I got an understanding of these containers and the versatility they hold. There are so many different prototypes for all the different things you could use them to build."

The containers can be played with all sorts of ways. All six of the walls can be removed, down to the beams, Leslie says, "and it is still structurally sound. There is so much opportunity to build with these containers."

The market for green

The project is still waiting for approval from the city, and the Horns still need to purchase two small parcels of land in the rear of the proposed development that is still under city ownership, but Flum says there aren't, as of right now, any hurdles facing the group.

Leslie says there has been nothing but interest and cooperation from the city, from the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., as well as their collegiate neighbor, Wayne State University. In fact, Leslie says, WSU is writing a letter of support for the project and is looking into shipping containers that would accommodate student housing.

Flum says that projects come and go all the time, without a shovel ever having been stuck in the ground. But, he says, this is different.

"There is a small market right now for units like these," he says, "but green design is getting bigger and though the market is still largely traditional, people are starting to look for alternative urban designs in urban areas. With the versatility of these containers, we can eventually start to cater to everyone."

The project got a boost earlier this year when it was asked by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to participate in the exhibit Considering Architecture: Sustainable Designs From Detroit. The only catch: They had to fit out a container.

Flum says that the Architecture Institute of America gave the Power of Green Housing and Flum the exhibit as long as they could finish a container for the show, with about a month's deadline to complete it. It's paid off.

"The MOCAD has really been the springboard for this project," Fowler says. "And now we can say, 'Go to MOCAD and check out our container.' It really has furthered our efforts."

Green Building is, essentially, recycling on a large scale. By taking these empty, unused, sitting structures that are structurally sound, the Horns and Flum's firm are participating in this idea of green and sustainable living in Detroit.

The units will run somewhere between $100,000 and $190,000 for about 850 to 1,900 square feet, a price Leslie says is less than what other comparable units are going for in the city.

"When it is all said and done it'll be about $100 a square foot and will save the end user 60 percent in energy costs – as in their gas, electric, and heat." A bigger picture, Leslie says, is to obtain a warehouse to manufacture these units here in Detroit, ship them out and, eventually, bring the price per square foot down to $70. For the time being, all construction will be on site.

These units will utilize technology like tankless water heaters and an additive for exterior paint developed by NASA that increase insulation, reflecting or retaining heat. The units will also have radiant floor heating, and they are playing with the idea of a green roof. The project couldn't be greener unless they painted the entire thing, well, green.

Both Flum and Leslie are looking toward the future. Flum says he already has a perfect spot for a similar container project on Woodward to break up the monotony of the current loft developments, while Leslie plans to take the Power of Green Housing and the container project not only nationally, but globally as well.

"We want to push the word of shipping containers," Flum says. "This is an art form with different architecture and new ideas. Passion for history and design in this town should grow the acceptance of these (alternative) projects. We've been waiting for new architecture to come to Detroit for a while."

And maybe they've found it.


Rendering courtesy Steven C. Flum Associates

Corner of Warren and Rosa Parks; future location for shipping container living spaces

Developer Leslie Horn

Steven C. Flum, owner of architect firm Steven C. Flum Associates

MOCAD exhibit Considering Architecture: Sustainable Designs From Detroit.

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.