The Denver Post
The Denver Post
DENVER (AP) – Convention isn’t Andrew McMullin’s strong suit. He became a contractor after receiving a degree in creative writing. To get to the tip of South America, he rode his bike. From Northern California.
So McMullin’s dwelling fits his theme: He lives in a house he built himself out of metal storage containers, the kind you see on ships and being hauled by trains. He got the idea while driving across Wyoming, listening to the Jack Kerouac book On the Road, and observing a train hauling a long line of containers.
“I thought, ‘I could build a house with them,’” said McMullin one frigid morning in his concrete-floored house. It sits on a pile of rocks, high above the town of Nederland. When the gusts reach 100 mph, it is hard to hear anything but the wind.
Building the house took him 18 months, stretching over two cold winters. The job involved lifting up the back of a tractor-trailer and pivoting it (to get the containers up his curved driveway); cutting doors out of the shipping containers’ metal bodies; and installing a wood stove for the dwelling’s main source of heat. It involved a bank that didn’t want to finance a house built from storage containers – the bankers, said McMullin, became involved with the house design, which did not please him.
But now the California native and rock-climbing addict – he moved to Nederland for its proximity to walls of granite and construction jobs – finds much pleasure in his house, which he shares with a roommate.
“The view from up here is amazing,” he said. A transparent garage door, which flanks the south side of the house and opens into the main living space, helps leverage that view. It is difficult to miss.
Clever builders and architects build houses from all sorts of things – mud bricks, straw bales, missile silos, grain bins. And prefabricated houses have been in vogue for a decade. McMullin’s house touches on both the strange and the prefabricated.
Shipping containers, he said, have great potential as the bedrock of buildings from houses to offices to storage spaces.
They are highly standardized – probably one of the most standardized products in the world. All of them are either 8 feet (wide and tall) and 20 feet long, 8 feet by 40 feet long, or 9 feet by 40 feet long.
International law dictates that containers can be used for only seven years. They are supposed to float, and after seven years, their buoyancy is less dependable. So there are lots of old shipping containers lying around.
McMullin paid $2,500 for each container. He found the largest ones, with the 9-foot ceilings, at a place in Longmont. The big ones are called “high cubes.”
Together, the containers represent 640 square feet of the house’s total 1,650 square feet. McMullin finds the containers aesthetically appealing in multiple ways. He likes the thick, stressed steel. He enjoys thinking about the places the containers traveled and what they held.
And he finds the containers almost elegant in their simplicity.
But they are not necessarily big money-savers. In Colorado-style climates, they must be insulated, which adds labor and material costs. They also must be delivered. Since McMullin is a contractor, he saved on labor costs; otherwise, he thought the costs probably would be close to what it would cost to frame and build a room.
His home is not the first to be cobbled together from shipping containers, but it may be the only one of its kind in Colorado, at least for now.
Brad Tomacek, a Boulder architect with Studio HT who designed McMullin’s house, said he routinely gets calls from Coloradans who say they want to build shipping-container houses; so far, he has designed only McMullin’s. He did, however, use a shipping container to build a bird-watching structure at a Nebraska park.
Shipping containers, he said, “make sense in the right conditions.”
“We talk to a lot of people about it,” he said. “You really have to like living in a container.”
In McMullin’s case, it’s not so much that you must like living in a container, but it would be helpful if you enjoyed sleeping in them.
McMullin used a container for two bedrooms and a pair of bathrooms; the other container holds the kitchen. In between the shipping containers sprawls McMullin’s open living space, a broad concrete pad with high ceilings, steel beams and walls of Utah clay.
Solar panels provide the dwelling’s power. Heat comes from the woodstove and a system McMullin built that runs hot water beneath the 6-inch-thick concrete floors. The floors act like “heat sinks,” he said, trapping heat and then radiating it into the house.
“I don’t have any bills,” he said.
He does, however, have a lemon tree parked beside the garage doors.
“I have strong feelings about houses,” said McMullin. “I don’t like hallways. I don’t like house designs that separate people. When you are in this house, you are with everybody. There is nowhere to hide.”
The house is “exactly what I envisioned,” said McMullin, and it presents surprises, too.
During the day, it feels wide open, especially during the summer, when McMullin often keeps open the garage door that leads into the living space.
At night, though, “you can barely see through the windows, because there is no light up here. So it becomes a cozy place.”
Associated Press file photo