A Different Perspective on Potential Artists’ Housing

Getting away from San Francisco, where the housing crisis has driven artists to places where rents are cheaper, always provides fresh insights into how other places are keeping their creative culture alive. A recent visit to Reno provided an extraordinary possibility for artists’ housing here that does not involve buying property for that purpose—and is cheap, aesthetically interesting, and environmentally sound.

In an unexpected and extended stay at the Morris Burner Hotel on W. 4th Street, Reno, I met a man who owns a huge warehouse a few blocks away. Artists from the Burning Man community used the warehouse to build the monumental temple of 2012, and now the owner wants to turn the space into artists’ studios. But he is also looking at the land around the building as a space for artists’ housing. He showed me dozens of pictures of how to do that both inexpensively and beautifully.

The secret is the repurposing of shipping containers. Two of them can be converted into an apartment typically referred to as a “junior one bedroom.” They cost about $800 for each container, and with some additional costs for design, plumbing, and electrical, container buildings can be built for about $50 per square foot. And they come with hardwood floors.

We have an excess of unused shipping containers in this country because we import more than we export. By definition, this makes us a third world country (with first world problems). In any case, it leaves us with all these solid and unused containers, built to stack 18 high on ships crossing stormy oceans; they’re safer in an earthquake than regular buildings. They’re solid, made of metal, so they don’t burn, and container buildings don’t need foundations.

All you need to build these houses is land and a small amount of capital—about $2,000 for each small apartment. A building can be constructed in half a day, with a crane, and the interior spaces can be remarkably versatile. To see some of the ways this concept has been used, and how these units can look,check out these sites:http://inhabitat.com/houston-hive-is-a-sustainable-village-made-from-500-shipping-containers or here: http://ecoble.com/2008/12/21/even-more-creative-shipping-container-houses.

The Art House project is a work in progress, and as more possibilities emerge, so do more options for involvement. Conventional houses are still a wonderful option, but the container buildings offer another option entirely—one that’s green and quick to build, and considerably less expensive than conventional architecture.