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From Cargo To Condos: Shipping Containers Form Bones Of New Apartments

An artist's rendering of "cargominiums" made from shipping containers.
An artist's depiction of "The Cargominiums," which is scheduled to be finished in early 2017.

If you watch reality TV or use do-it-yourself sites like Pinterest, you've probably seen garages, bunkers, or even houses made from old shipping containers. A Columbus non-profit housing agency is taking that a step further with the state's first apartment building built from those big metal boxes.

The agency Nothing Into Something Real Estate, Inc., has started construction on the "Cargominiums" on Old Leonard Avenue on the Near East Side. It's expected to be completed in early 2017.

"Because we're in the housing space, we've been looking for a creative way to solve the problem of the lack of affordable housing in this community," says NISRE President and CEO Michelle Reynolds.

Reynolds says using shipping containers as the bones of the building is about 50 to 60 percent cheaper than building the same building with traditional materials, and she says the building can be "skinned" with siding or anything else to change its appearance.

For more on the unique project and what zoning hurdles needed to be climbed, Reynolds sat down with WOSU's Steve Brown.

The below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.
Steve Brown: You might have seen some people repurposing metal shipping containers into homes or garages. One Columbus non-profit housing agency is using old shipping containers to build a housing development. It's called the "Cargominiums," and the Near East Side building will use 54 old shipping containers to create 25 apartments. Michelle Reynolds is with NICRE, Inc., which stands for Nothing Into Something Real Estate, the group behind the project. She joins us now. Thanks for your time.

Michelle Reynolds: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Steve Brown: So the project it is a go, right? It's past the planning stages and the actual construction has started.

Michelle Reynolds: That's correct. It is. We have started breaking ground this week and we're really excited about that. Steve Brown: Where did the idea come from? Michelle Reynolds: Well, shipping container homes are pretty creative and innovative but nothing new.

Steve Brown: They're kind of trendy though, you might see them on HGTV or something like that.

Michelle Reynolds: That's correct. A lot of people see them on HGTV and it's something that is going on widely out in the West Coast. But because we're in the housing space we've been looking for a creative way to really solve the problem of affordable housing, the lack of affordable housing in this community.

And so using that application we decided that if we put together an apartment complex, a multi-family complex, that we could actually develop more affordable housing as a model that could be replicated around the country.

Steve Brown: Is it a lot cheaper than a stick built building?

Michelle Reynolds: It is a lot cheaper than a stick built building. It's approximately about 50 or 60 percent cheaper. I have my developer here so he could certainly speak to that.

What's wonderful about the shipping container is that it's really just a building block. We kind of like to consider it as LEGOs.

Steve Brown: Sure, but it is a lot cheaper. Are there any zoning issues or can you just do this the same as you would with a traditional building?

Michelle Reynolds: Well because it is the first in Columbus and there's really nothing that's been on the building codes here before, there are some zoning issues that we had to overcome. First of all, you know, we had to make sure that the land was zoned appropriately and so that's the same process. However, with building with shipping containers, there were some things that we had to go through and it took about a year in planning to be able to work with the City of Columbus Building Services to be able to get this approved.

Steve Brown: These containers, with all due respect, were not always the most attractive looking buildings, at least in their raw form. How are you mitigating that or are you changing the design or what are you doing?

Michelle Reynolds: Absolutely. So what's wonderful about the shipping container is that it's really just a building block. We kind of like to consider it as LEGOS and so you can be very creative with it, you can skin the building any way that you want to. So that means you can put any type of material on the outside, whether it be brick, HARDIPLANK, stucco, you can do anything with that.

And then on the inside we would certainly be doing drywall and things like that. The way our building looks is you really wouldn't be able to tell that it's made with shipping containers. It's what we use in the framing of the building. But we can make it look as a shipping container-ish possible if we want to, or we can just make it look like an actual building.

Steve Brown: You say you're trying to be creative with your affordable housing. What's the limit here? What else can you do?

Michelle Reynolds: Well we want to not only use this in a residential application, we want to use it in a commercial application. We do have a social enterprise aspect of our business, and so we like to give workforce development opportunities and job opportunities to the folks that we serve in housing.

And so we would like to take this application and actually open up retail shops, pop-up shops, that someone can, you know, operate their business out of. So that is the next step, as well as using this as a model to replicate it all over.

Steve Brown: The faith-based housing organization Nothing Into Something Real Estate is building Ohio's first residential housing development made up entirely of shipping containers. The Near East Side project should be finished by early next year. Michelle Reynolds, thanks again.

Michelle Reynolds: You're welcome. Thanks for having us.