Gainesville business builds homes out of shipping containers
At a typical home construction site, two-by-four beams build the skeleton of a home. Insulation and drywall complete the inner walls. A roof is placed on top; in Florida it’s usually made of shingles, metal or tile.
But John Cook, founder and CEO of Welding to Recycle, doesn’t do typical home construction.
Cook specializes in building homes, offices and industrial spaces out of intermodal shipping containers. These steel boxes may not seem homey initially, but Cook and his team construct them to feel like regular apartments. Each container home can be customized with one or more bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom, windows and sliding doors, plumbing, air conditioning and electricity.
In 2015, Cook started his business with the goal of sustainability in mind. Used shipping containers, he said, usually get thrown in the landfill after they’re no longer fit to hold cargo. Typical recycling also takes a lot of energy to melt the steel down for reuse. But with a container home, Cook can extend the life of an 8'-by-20' container. He says his homes are built to last at least 50 years.
“If we don't melt them down and repurpose the steel, instead we're just grabbing the box, repurposing the box into a new use, that will save some carbon footprint,” he said.
In addition to sustainability, container homes have also been touted as a stronger building material.
“They are designed to stack nine high on a ship for 10-plus years in harsh weather conditions, so these boxes are designed to last,” said Stephen Bender, program director for CityLab Orlando, a University of Florida graduate-level architecture program.
Bender said the process of building a container home starts with a different set of expertise.
“Building a container or building out a container as a home is different than what builders are used to doing,” he said, adding that traditional homes are made of concrete, block and lumber. “They're not familiar with structural steel.”
But Cook said once the holes in the steel are cut for windows and doors and the structure is fortified, the homes are outfitted with insulation, plumbing and electricity just like a normal house.
“There are certain modifications that we don't recommend because you are modifying the structure of the container,” said Vanessa Alfonzo, marketing director for Welding to Recycle.
During the pandemic, Welding to Recycle started specializing in smaller homes for short-term rental sites like Airbnb, as well as portable offices. But supply chain shortages led to increased costs.
“The chain was broken, everybody stopped, the entire world stopped, and then all in a sudden the entire world turned back on,” Cook said. “At one point we paid double the price for windows. We paid double for lumber, for steel.”
However, as the supply chain has slowly returned to normal, so have their operations.
“It was hard. It was hard, but I think we all survived and, and little by little, everything is going back hopefully to normal,” Alfonzo said.
Now Welding to Recycle designs and builds about 10 to 13 container homes per year. Small, 20-foot-wide containers start at around $49,000, with larger or more customized homes increasing in price.
Alachua County Commissioner Mary Alford met with Alfonzo earlier this year to discuss using these container homes for affordable housing for people transitioning out of homelessness.
“And when we met, we were like, ‘Oh my God, we are in the right place with the right person,’” Alfonzo said, adding that the meeting was scheduled for a few minutes because of Alford’s busy public schedule, “...but we talked for hours.”
Alford said the project is still in the planning stages, but eventually she wants the county to build a series of container structures at Grace Marketplace in Gainesville.
“It makes sense to me that if you are a person that is trying to get out of homelessness, that you would want to at least start with a door that can lock and windows and a bed that's your own,” she said. “And while these spaces might be very small, it's still your own space.”
Alford said cost plays a large role in the planning, because while a container home may be cheaper than a regular home, the fully outfitted version is still too expensive for the county on a large scale.
“One of the things that we brainstormed about while we were there is taking a shipping container and making it into three or four small bedrooms. And each bedroom would be individual with a window and a door and an air conditioning unit, a place for a bed and a dresser and storage,” she said.
This design would include additional containers for bathroom and laundry facilities, as well as outdoor lighting, picnic tables and internet services. Alford said this idea may sound cramped, but “it would be a way more private facility for many people than what we currently can offer out at Grace Marketplace.”
Alachua County doesn’t typically fund emergency housing projects like Grace Marketplace; that usually falls under Gainesville’s jurisdiction. But with the city planning to make large budget cuts due to its debt load, Alford said the county is trying to step in.
“The city of Gainesville is having to make many budgetary changes right now, so we're still looking at where the county fits into supporting a facility like this,” Alford said.
A completed housing site is still a long way away. Alford said the county still needs to finalize the cost, design the structures, find funding and go through permitting before they can even start building the homes. But she’s excited to start the process.
“This has always been a goal of mine to use the shipping containers for transitional housing,” she said.