Shipping containers can be used a number of times before they’re “retired” from carrying cargo, after which they can be made available for a variety of creative and utilitarian uses, such as housing.

Though usually cheap to buy used, they’re strong, durable, and adaptable. People modify them for all types of housing, from basic to high end.

Inspired by a friend in San Francisco who moved frequently due to her rent rising, Salt Lake City real estate broker Jeff White spent two years working in his driveway on a prototype home that could help low-income people like his friend Sarah. He then moved on to building this more refined version, called the Sarah House, on a vacant city lot.

White is a long-time volunteer at Salt Lake City’s Crossroads Urban Center, and built the home through a program he started at the nonprofit.

White and the Sarah House were featured in a Fair Companies video, where he explained his design and construction rationale. Several key factors drove his decision, including accessibility for all people, affordability, and green materials.

Overall square footage of the home was important, too, as White said 55 per cent of adults in the US live alone, and many neither need nor want a large house.

“These are for people who want a home with a small carbon footprint and enough room to hold their gear, a couple of pets and raise a garden,” White told Salt Lake City Weekly.

The Sarah House, for sale to people with limited income, makes use of two “hi-cube” containers. The containers are roughly 12.2 metres long by 2.44 metres wide by 2.9 metres tall. This makes them one foot taller than standard containers, which provides a greater sense of space.

metal house
The design includes a large covered front porch.

“We’re again trying to reintroduce a front porch as a gathering place for neighbors to visit, and idea of keeping an eye on the street, and just a nice welcome to your home,” White told Fair Companies.

Energy conscious building elements ensure a comfortable and economical environment, just as they do with a standard home. The roof is built with standard framing lumber, insulated to R45, and uses a rubber membrane on top. The exterior walls have studs fitted on the inside, then a layer of closed-cell spray foam insulation is applied, then Ecobatt insulation with drywall brings the total to R26.

Clerestory windows in one of the two long walls deliver plenty of natural light, while their placement also ensures privacy. Two sliding glass doors and three large window units also provide abundant light and ventilation.

The spaces are well designed for a single person, with a small bedroom that, White said, would accommodate a queen size bed. The “flex space” is a multi-purpose room that could serve as guest lodging, office, or hold a crib. The bathroom is designed to be accessible to seniors and disabled people.

“We wanted to create an environment where people can stay in their homes a lot longer,” he added.

Mechanical systems make use of new designs to save money and space. A tankless water heater hangs on the wall next to the Mitsubishi mini-split heat pump/AC unit. No ductwork is needed for the mini-split system, as a sensor detects the location of the homeowner and directs the hot or cold air to that location. White said the mini-split unit is expected to cost $40 to $45 per month, while the water heater will be more like $5 per month.

The Sarah House is for sale for $135,000 to income-qualified individuals. White said the house, as a prototype, cost more than anticipated but there is potential to reduce costs. The containers cost approximately $4,500 each, with additional structural work to reinforce the steel they removed. At $9,500, he described this work as “over engineered.” Overall construction cost for the house totalled $68,000, plus $40,000 for the lot and $25,000 for sewer and water connection.

Meeting municipal codes designed for traditional homes, White said, added significantly to the project’s cost. He originally specified a concrete pier foundation, a cheap, fast, proven, and resource-efficient approach that would take advantage of the containers’ inherent strength. Codes required a fully-insulated perimeter foundation, costing an extra $8,000. The concrete driveway and parking areas were also required, costing thousands more.

Site costs were substantial at $65,000, so White intended to place another container home on the site, effectively spreading the costs for the eventual buyer over two homes. That wasn’t permitted, so White worked with the city to pass a measure permitting accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The measure passed, but in a limited area of the city that did not include the Sarah House.