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Shipping containers may be last word in studio living

Lorenzo Perez of Venue Projects in Phoenix has a model of apartments from containers.

Lorenzo Perez of Venue Projects in Phoenix has a model of apartments from containers.

Phoenix architect and developer Lorenzo Perez is planning what could be the ultimate in recycling: building studio apartments out of used shipping containers.

He joins a growing number of architects, developers, researchers and others who have become fascinated with new uses for the ubiquitous metal corrugated containers that transport goods globally by truck, train and ship.

The containers revolutionized international trade when they were created about 50 years ago. Now, new and recycled containers are being used for homes, apartments, dorms and shopping centers throughout the world.

The containers are virtually indestructible and, at $2,000 for a standard new 40-foot container, quite affordable.

They usually come in 20- and 40-foot lengths and are 8 to 9 feet wide and tall.

Perez wants to create two studio apartments that would each use a 40-foot and a 20-foot container placed parallel to each other, with a covered breezeway in between. The longer container would be set up as a living unit and the smaller unit could be a guest house, office or artist’s studio.

Assuming he gets permits from Phoenix, he plans to put the units on a lot he owns near Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Street and begin renting them this fall. It’s an area that has attracted a number of artists and is one of the main stops for the First Friday art tours. He said they could probably be rented for about $650 a month.

“I have been intrigued how people are using shipping containers globally for a variety of uses, whether it be transportation or shelter,” he said. “I thought it would be fun to do something in this particular area for affordable housing for artists or people who want to live downtown in something kind of interesting.”

Perez said his shipping-container homes could become models for affordable infill housing.

He especially likes the challenge of making metal boxes habitable in a hot desert environment.

From the inside, the containers would look like regular buildings. They would be finished out with drywall, windows and doors and, of course, plumbing and electricity. They would be insulated and air-conditioned and shaded by mesquite trees.

“We have found some interesting products out there that are used on containers for transporting heat-sensitive goods like produce and stuff that are applied by paint. They give a tremendous insulation value,” Perez said.

He wants to start with two units, rent them out and see how they work out throughout the year.

Perez and his business partner, Jon Kitchell, own Venue Projects, a development company, and Kitchell-Perez LLC, a building company that focuses on infill projects.

Containers have been used as buildings for a long time but generally not for homes.

Camelback Container Services LLC, a Phoenix company, converts containers into offices that can be trucked to remote locations, such as a construction site. Mobile Mini Inc., a Tempe public company founded in 1983, has become a major worldwide supplier of portable storage and offices.

John McManis, a vice president of One Way Lease Inc., the San Francisco parent company of Camelback Container Services, said container architecture is the latest phase in the history of containers. The metal boxes were first developed in the mid-1950s to create a better way to transport goods and cut down on breakage and theft.

In 2006, the 50th anniversary of the creation of shipping containers, Marc Levinson, a New York economist, published a book on their history and significance: “How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.”

But because of the global slowdown in trade, thousands are now parked at ports in Asia. Most shipping containers bring goods from Asia and Europe to North America and return empty because of the trade imbalance. Most containers are made in China, McManis said.

One Way Lease started leasing the containers for shipping and now mostly focuses on its wholesale business of converting them to offices or storage units. Mobile Mini has been a major customer.

Used containers are easy to upgrade for reuse, McManis said. Excess rust can be easily scraped off and then the metal can be primed and painted, and the containers can last more than 50 years.

“You talk about low-tech. They have two moving parts, a left door and a right door,” he said.

To encourage more diverse uses such as Perez’s proposal, One Way Lease’s Web site now promotes their many uses, including as additions to a shop, shelters, vending facilities and fast deployment levees. Walt Disney Studios used 180 containers in 1995 to create a giant movie screen in New York City’s Central Park.

“The person who has taken this farthest (of the company’s customers) is Lorenzo. This is really a neat little project,” McManis said.

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