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Living très chic in a shipping container

A container home that Pope designed in Carrollton, Georgia. Photo: Atelier7

In this material-driven world, few possessions escape a journey in a shipping container. During Covid-19, architects began shuttling these seaworthy blocks out of hectic ports into the countryside, turning them into dreamy homes that are quickly constructed and highly customizable.

As home sales in America soar, (the national average now hovers above $400K), second home ownership requires a long-term strategy that can produce a quick return on investment. In states like Georgia, shipping containers are getting trendy.

Tony Pope, the founding architect at Atelier7 in Atlanta specializes in shipping containers and modular housing that complement the natural environment. Made of steel with ceilings typically nine feet tall, these solid structures can take a matter of weeks to build because the frame is ready to go. Vermin-proof, fire-resistant and sturdy enough to support floor-to-ceiling windows, Pope enjoys designing brand new homes because of the design possibilities. No wonder they’re a hit on Airbnb.

“We’re repurposing a metal box typically used for storage and giving it new life and purpose,” he said. “The interesting thing is that even when finished, you take the house apart or move it. There’s a continual life stream.”

Unquestionably modern and built to last
Built to last, ready to be trucked, and unquestionably modern in look, Pope’s Atlanta practice has taken off. In 2020, he won the Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award for designing Georgia’s first container park in the MLK neighborhood of Atlanta.

Tony Pope

By Abigail Napp

This year, Pope has 32 homes in the works. As part of his full-service practice, Pope supervises the project from start to finish. The shipping containers come from China loaded with goods. When they arrive in the U.S., Pope works with metalsmiths and contractors to work out the steel structure of the home. By Georgia law, Pope must use recycled shipping containers that were in service just “one time,” because of health concerns over the materials they might have transported.

Really understand where you’re building it and the compatibility with your neighbors…

Despite an obsession with square shapes, Pope is an out-of-the-box thinker. After 40 years in architecture, he’s pursuing a master’s degree in real estate management and development at Georgia Tech. He hopes to scale these residential projects, incorporate better building practices and begin manufacturing shipping containers in America. One of his obsessions is affordable housing.

Turns out, containers aren’t that cheap. In Atlanta, they cost about $5,000, depending on the price of steel. But they are plentiful and can be assembled quickly.

“The savings comes from the fact that the structural system is already made and the speed to build,” said Pope. “We can do a house in about 5 weeks.”

With the home’s steel frame and walls welded together in record time, Pope then works with contractors to finish the build of the home. Homeowners are often deeply involved, focusing on creative interiors, rooftop gardens and spacious decks. Pope’s portfolio reveals the versatility of these corrugated boxes and the potential for hybrid designs and styles.

We asked Pope to guide us through the steps when thinking about designing a home out of a steel box.

A render for one of Pope’s designs. Image: Atelier7

The allure for an architect

EH: As an architect, tell us three reasons why you became obsessed with shipping containers?

Pope: First, I was interested in repurposing the box. There are three million of these things thrown in wastelands across the country. I thought this would be a way of giving back to the system, giving it energy and new life. I thought it was interesting that a box for shipping goods is now a vessel for containing people. Giving it a new life and purpose was a cool idea.

Second, I love the idea that the container is a limited module — it’s only eight feet. It helps restrict and expand your thinking. There’s a lot you can do if you think everything has to be contained in the box. The space outside the box, merging or spacing are all things you can do, but most people don’t think about that.

Three, the best facet of shipping containers: it’s the basis of global transportation! Boat, train, the back of a ford F150! You can ship it with just about anything. It’s a modular product that makes a lot of sense for its ability to get into neighborhoods.

EH: Why do you think containers are becoming more popular on Airbnb?

Pope: Because they are easily scaled. You can start with one box and add more. It also provides opportunities both inside and outside. You can add an outdoor stair and roof deck and all of a sudden you have two spaces that you don’t typically have in a wood house. You’ve got speed and can quickly rent it. It also has a coolness factor, and it’s so different from anything else. There are a lot of people in love with the look and shape and corrugation. We see a lot of bad examples and a lot of really cool ones.

EH: Some people seem attracted to containers because they appear more ecological. What makes your container homes more in tune with the natural environment than a traditional wooden house?

Pope: It works in a couple of ways, starting with how you site the project. Because of the scale of the home, we can take advantage of the sun and wind patterns, so that we don’t overheat the house or create problems that require forced air and comfort. We actually look at and model energy usage and dynamics of the project to make sure we have the right openings and coverings. When we locate the home on the ground we float it rather than glue it to the ground with a concrete foundation. By doing that we don’t disturb the natural water flows of the topography and that saves you money.

The building materials are also important. The products we put in the interior are energy-saving and eco-friendly. For example, a company in Georgia is developing a spray foam made from soybeans. We also avoid VOCs [volatile organic compounds] in our paint. I found many clients are interested in repurposing and reusing things. In one house, the homeowner wanted to turn rusted brake rotors from a truck into light fixtures.

Most of the work is already done

The container home that Pope designed in Carrollton, Georgia. Photo: Atelier7

EH:You mentioned container homes have a fast build time. Can you explain how?

Pope: The speed comes from having the structural shell in place. For a wood home, you have to go to Home Depot, buy lumber, frames, flooring and roofing. It would take a better part of a day. With a container home, I can call the depot and have it dropped off in 30 minutes. You’re starting with an enclosed volume in which you are able to go into your finished trades. If you do the work in the factory, I can work in various segments in the house simultaneously and they go together like a puzzle. With a wood house, I can’t do the second floor of a house until I have the second floor framed. In a factory with fabricators, I can work on the first and second floor. The speed comes in the ability to work simultaneously.

EH: These boxes don’t come with windows and doors. What do you do?

Pope: A key factor is again where you site the house. Traditionally, you put the front door facing the street and align with the street –– no one gives a reason for doing that other than that’s what everyone else is doing. That way of building doesn’t take care of the wind, the rain, the vista, and those are the things we start to look at. How can we capture views? I tend to put a window at the end of the container. It can be a sliding glass door. Another thing you can get in a container are larger windows thanks to the steel. So we like to do floor-to-ceiling glass. That also sort’ve connects you to the landscape.

The inside of the container home in Carrollton, Georgia. Photo: Atelier7

EH: Can you get high ceilings? 

Pope: You can stack containers and cut out the top and bottom.

EH: What about heating and cooling and protection from the sun?

Pope: We use mini splits. It’s the wall pack. It’s becoming a very popular heating and air system in standard construction. The technology has a sensor and will follow you around as it blows. It’s European technology that has come over here and now you’re starting to see this everywhere. No air ducts needed. And for roofs, we insulate from above, so the sun never bears on the container wall itself.

EH: Are containers really affordable for people ready to build a home?

Pope: It’s an interesting thing when we use the term “affordable.” I have to be careful, because when I say ‘affordable’ people think of low-income housing. We’re looking to build housing at a price point of $300K and below.

EH: With builders in high demand and supplies getting more costly, do you think people like containers because there’s less to worry about?

Pope: The nice thing with the container build is that it’s pretty close to a one-stop shop. You come to us, and we help you manage the process. You don’t have the remote parts to piece together, plus we work with people experienced with doing what we do. You’re not building with sticks on a site, but lifting a metal box with a crane. These are methods some people have never used before, and we use different techniques to build this kind of house.

EH: Your architecture practice is based in Georgia. Where do you see containers becoming popular?  

Pope: A majority of my work is outside of the city in rural and mountain communities, where the majority of them are Airbnb. And I think Covid did that.

EH: Who is attracted to this style of architecture?

Pope: We haven’t done a study on the kind of personality types that we are targeting. I couldn’t ascertain anything more than people who are open. They are early adopter types and well-educated. I find half of my clients have the ego on the outside, ‘look at me, I’ve got one and you don’t.’ And I have two clients that are in the medical research fields and into technical stuff. I have not had a client yet interested in a traditional interior with crown molding. They like instagram and high modern homes.

Another one of Pope’s renderings. Image: Atelier7

The advantages of living in small spaces

EH: What are some advantages for living in and designing small spaces?

Pope: I like to focus on how small spaces make us pay attention to details and see elements like crown molding. Typically, we use crown molding to hide the fact that sheetrock doesn’t go up to the ceiling, and it’s sloppy construction. We build houses today that are throw-away homes. These shipping containers will last 50 to 75 years. They have regular rooms and you get 9 foot ceilings. I’m also big on less is more so you’ll find many of these have streamlined kitchens. We try to find a way to put things that would normally be on the counters in cabinets. And you get inventive when you utilize space for multiple things. I saw a guy who had a loft and the stairs folded into the wall.

EH: Town planning boards are known for resisting change. What are your tips for winning people over with this unique-looking construction? 

Pope: First, don’t go in telling them what you’re about to do with a ‘shipping container.’ Look out for language. Dig in and see what can and cannot be done within the zoning and planning. Your conversations should be about ‘modular’ building. Some people confuse modular with manufactured, but manufactured is for mobile homes. So look for that language.

The second piece is to show them the benefit of why you’re doing it, and how it will enhance life in the town. Augusta [Georgia] does not allow shipping containers, so we took the modular route and told them how it’s an iconic piece and will be a draw. Talk about the merits of the project and describe how the construction process will leave less of an impact on the neighborhood and the land. The build time is fast and builders will not disturb the neighbors with 9-12 months of hammering and nails. They won’t have to do all that grading, and you may not have to worry about taking trees down. This is an opportunity to build in a different manner with Mother Earth so to speak. You’ll have to research cladding, and or maybe you’ll only have to worry about the front facade. Also, it’s important to assure the building department that you’ll have design professionals, because they may not know how to inspect it. The first thing they ask is about the foundation, and how to mount it into the ground. Remind them it’s only a house that happens to be metal. Sometimes when you tell them ‘shipping containers,’ they think of FEMA housing or something on Facebook that was in the mountains with aluminum foil antennas, a composting toilet and plastic rain barrels. They don’t see a sophisticated house.

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