Few homebuyers would notice an old shipping container for sale and think: “That’s it! That’s our new home.”
But Seattle architect Kai Schwarz may change that.
Since 2011, he has been working to transform used shipping containers into modern works of “cargotecture.”
Schwarz, along with ShelterKraft Werks co-owner Anne Corning, has completed the first 20-by-8-foot home and is building two others.
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Modern stainless-steel appliances, hardwood floors, a tiled bathroom with a shower and a queen bed don’t crowd the 160-square-foot “Cargo Cottage” studio.
At 8 feet wide, outstretched hands can almost touch each side.
The starting price ranges from $35,000 for the cottage and up to $72,000 for the two-bedroom “Cargo Haus,” a double 40-foot container with 640 square feet.
Schwarz says the idea came to him while working as an architect for Starbucks.
Gazing out the conference-room window during a meeting, he noticed the nearby shipping yard in South Seattle was full of bright-red containers with the company name Hamburg Süd. Hamburg is the German city just south of where Schwarz was born.
“I started fantasizing about what I would need to make the space livable so I could sneak into a container and be transported back home,” says Schwarz. “I thought, let’s see, I’ll need a bed and bathroom and what else?”
Years later, after leaving his corporate job, selling all his possessions that didn’t float and spending two years sailing on his 26-foot boat, Schwarz had an epiphany.
The water was sparkling with bioluminescence, the stars were out and dolphins were swimming alongside his boat. He says that’s when he knew he wanted to propose going into the cargo-home business with his partner, opera singer Anne Corning.
“People ask if we are married and I say no, we are incorporated,” says Schwarz.
It’s harder to get out of than marriage anyway, he jokes. Corning has an MBA from UW and a marketing background. Schwarz has the design skills.
The first two cargo homes are being built at the ShelterKraft location in Ballard and set up on Whidbey Island. And, like a boat, they can easily be picked up by a boom crane and transported using a flatbed truck to a different location if needed.
“It’s the ultimate in reuse,” says Amy Gulick, an author and photographer, who purchased a Cargo Cottage with her husband, Chris Gulick. “I love the idea of taking a perfectly good steel structure and making it into something great instead of discarding it into a waste yard.”
The plan is to put the cottage on a piece of land on Whidbey Island that overlooks Admiralty Inlet, live in it for a while and then turn it into a guesthouse.
Amy Gulick says the energy-efficient, environmentally friendly aspect appeals to her. The homes are made of 80 percent recycled or re-purposed materials.
She also feels confident knowing that Schwarz has a system to track each container by identification number, like a VIN number on a car, to see what the container carried and to be sure nothing toxic has ever been transported.
It also doesn’t hurt that the containers have style.
“We stopped by to look at the model home for fun, but then we were absolutely surprised and amazed,” says Gulick.
The couple liked the round windows that broke up the boxy feeling.
“The more we looked at it, the more we realized it’s like a boat,” she says. “Everything, every square inch of space, has to be used and everything has to have a purpose in such a small area to make it work.”
There may be a reason the homes have such a nautical feel. Schwarz has a background as a maritime electrician and grew up around boats.
When he was 3 years old, he sailed with his family to the United States by freight ship from Germany.
To start the company, both Corning and Schwarz downsized. Schwarz sold his boat, but he says he doesn’t feel chained down.
He keeps dreaming of even bigger projects. He said he is in talks with interested buyers to construct containers to serve as everything from movable office space to hygiene centers for the homeless.
ShelterKraft has also sold a walk-in storage container unit and a classroom made out of a cargo container.
Schwarz also plans to build a couple of cargo containers within the next year for himself.
Maybe a double 20-foot elevated living and music cottage for Corning and a 20-foot “floating cargo cottage” for himself that he can moor on the water — just like a boat.