ship shape

Containers on Grand embraces a message of sustainability, as well as modern living.


According to industry statistics, about 17 million shipping containers are in circulation around the globe, moving freight on ships, trucks and railcars. As of 2016, 16 of them have been given a new purpose in the form of eight, one-bedroom modern-living apartment homes off 12th and Grand avenues in downtown Phoenix.

More goods come into the U.S. than get exported, so most shipping containers end up being sent back empty to other countries for reuse or recycling. But for Wes James, AIA, architect at Scottsdale-based STARKJAMES, thetrade imbalance represented an opportunity to get creative with Containers on Grand.

“A development group selected us as the architect and contractor for the project, and we later became part of the development team, too,” James says. “This group liked the idea of repurposing containers—instead of recycling them—because the message of sustainability would resonate from a marketability standpoint.”

Boutique and custom homes have been on the leading edge of using containers, James explains, but the tricky part in multifamily is doing it under U.S. building code. As rugged as they are, shipping containers don’t qualify as building materials.

MG_9813_600px“Anecdotally, you can stack 40-foot containers 11 high, connected only by metal cams, and put them on a container ship under incredible dynamic load conditions on the open ocean,” he says. “But that math doesn’t work for a structure you live in, because they haven’t been tested the way standard concrete blocks have, for instance. There’s no check box on the form down at the city that says ‘shipping container.’ ” Containers on Grand embraces a message of sustainability, as well as modern living

Although containers are relatively inexpensive ($2,000 to $3,000 each), building with them for the same cost as wood frame and stucco is also a challenge. The uniqueness would bring a little bit of cache to the project, but to be competitive, the target rental rate was $1.20 to $1.30 per foot for the 740 square foot units.

James came up with a few novel ideas that would enable the project to save money. Having containers tested and included in the building code would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so STARKJAMES navigated the approval process by showing fireproofing and redundant structures.

“In layman’s terms, we chose to stack them as they were intended, right on their bearing points,” he says. “That also aligns with the message about repurposing—they look just as they would be stacked on a dock or boat.”

_MG_9897_600pxThat same principle was applied to leaving the containers raw and rough on the outside in contrast to the refined interiors. Blue containers were chosen, since orange rust peaking through creates a complementary color.

One of the first concerns James often heard was about how hot a metal box would get in the desert heat.

“Actually, these units have better insulated envelopes than required by code,” he says. “The skin heats up, but it also cools down much faster than stucco.”

The interior, exterior and roof are isolated from heat gain by closed-cell insulation.
The small site footprint was another constraint, given the containers’ 8-feet-wide, 40-feet-long, and 9.5-feet-high dimensions. To optimize efficiency, and to simplify installation for the trades, James designed a masonry core that contains all of the utilities between the units.

STARKJAMES is currently in the pre-application process for another downtown apartment complex. Eventually, the firm would like to take the concept into the townhome market.

“I’m happy to have been part of the trend of people looking at Grand Avenue in a different way, by building something that fits the eclectic arts community,” James says. “In the next five years, I expect we’ll see a lot of growth in that area.”

Story by Jake Poinier

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