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Local developer wants to convert old containers into affordable housing

Every year, millions of shipping containers come to the United States carrying cargo and consumer goods. Thousands of them never return overseas, often sitting empty and unused in U.S. ports and shipping yards.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Carl Coffman stands in one of two unfinished containers that will be converted into housing.Carl Coffman, a Portland developer, has a better idea: Turn those containers into houses.

Coffman, an experienced developer, is known for renovations of historic buildings like the Calumet Building in downtown Portland, home of the former Brasserie Montmartre restaurant. A couple years ago, Coffman decided to take on a new type of project, building less on a grand scale, and more on the practical side, he says.

"I've always ended up building on the high end of the economic scale, and it was simply a concerted effort to say, 'Let's build something with a smaller footprint that's better for the environment,'" Coffman explains.

He started with a basic wood "pole barn" house, roughly 24 feet by 24 feet. Shortly after the house was complete, someone set fire to the structure, burning it to the ground. Coffman recalled looking at the remnants and ash lying on the ground.

"I started thinking that couldn't happen if it was metal," Coffman says.

From there he began looking into reusing materials like galvanized-steel shipping containers to build the structures. Inspired by a student dorm built of shipping containers at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Coffman began creating his own designs for smaller, single-family houses.

The 24-foot-long metal boxes could have one end-cap replaced with glass for a window and natural light, while the rest of the box would remain intact, with rooms built inside.

Coffman's idea of building a shipping-container home is not exactly new. Hundreds of people around the nation have taken the steel boxes and used them to build abstract, luxury homes in places like Colorado, Texas and California.

However, Coffman wants to gear his home designs toward affordability and practicality, and plans to create a manufacturing facility to sell the predesigned housing units to interested buyers. He hasn't yet chosen a site for that.

With a single shipping container costing less that $3,000, the total cost of building a completed home can be in the $70,000 range.

"If we can build a house and sell it for $95,000, then we can also be competitive in the housing market," Coffman says.

Currently, Coffman is working with the state to get his designs licensed and approved for production. Operating under the business name "Relevant," Coffman hopes to fabricate four different home models between 200 square feet and 900 square feet that could be sold to individual homebuyers. So far, he has only built one of the homes, now on site in Southern Oregon.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF CARL COFFMAN - A conceptual illustration of a 10-unit shipping container home complex created by Carl Coffman. This particular design would allow 10 families to live in 640-square-foot homes inside the complex.Coffman also has proposed designs for multifamily complexes that could be built by municipalities. In January, Coffman approached the St. Helens City Council about building such a housing complex along the city's waterfront, where he developed an earlier project.

Growing up in a logging family, Coffman remembers seeing massive, old-growth logs being hauled down the road with one tree trunk per truck. Now it takes numerous smaller trunks to fill a load, he says, and the overall quality of wooden building materials has declined as a result.

"We basically logged our way to the Pacific Ocean and now we're going, 'Now what?,' " Coffman says.

"I don't think this is the next big thing. But I do know as we become a greater consumer nation, we've ended up with more of these (shipping container) units on our shores."

If we're going to have these containers on our soil, he figures, they might as well be used for something.

FIND OUT MORE

For information about Coffman's company and his home designs, visit www.relevantbuildings.com.

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