They are the building blocks of the global economy, 20 million big steel boxes sloshing across oceans on mammoth container ships.
Starting Monday, the first of 18 dented outcasts are set to be stacked in a dug-out District basement, turning a deteriorating student group house into an experiment in creating eye-catching housing fast and on the cheap.
Among the questions raised by the effort: Can hundreds of thousands of discarded sea containers, long talked up by designers, really help create more affordable housing, or is it mostly a gimmick? And just how do you bring humanity to the confines of an 8-by-40-foot box?
If the economics work and people actually enjoy living in lovingly repurposed steel husks, the architects on the project have bigger dreams, including floating hundreds of sea container apartments on a barge in the Potomac and creating a homeless village on the river to serve Georgetown.
First, though, things have to go smoothly this week in a booming swath of the District just down the street from Catholic University, where theology graduate and former fullback Matthew Grace, 31, and his business partner and Cardinals teammate Sean Joiner, 31, are living with the anxiety-inducing results of a decision they made on a snowy day last winter.
Instead of fixing up the aging rental house they bought in 2009 as moonlighting real estate investors, they tore it down.
“There’s not a lot of going back from that,” Joiner said.
“You go from something you can rent to a big hole,” Grace said.
For years, the young real estate entrepreneurs had been tapping the architectural mind of Grace’s fiancee for free: wall colors, building materials, general notions about design. Grace had met Kelly Davies at Catholic and traveled with her and architecture lecturer Travis Price, to Ireland, where Price had taken students on a design expedition he started decades ago.
“We were building monuments, and we needed hands,” said Davies, who is now at Price’s firm.
Watching her work has helped Grace see the beauty in independent-minded modern architecture.
“You ever read ‘The Fountainhead’?” Grace asked, referring to the Ayn Rand novel about a rebellious architect’s fight against conformists. Price and Davies could be the protagonists. “They’re like the Howard Roark guys,” Grace said.
Grace and Joiner had tried getting into real estate back when they were roommates at Catholic. But it wasn’t until the easy-credit housing boom of the mid-2000s that they bought their first rowhouse on Capitol Hill.
They lived together in the basement, fixed it up and rented out the upstairs, and slowly pieced together a half-dozen properties, which they manage when they’re not working their day jobs at a Bethesda financial-planning firm.
As landlords, they’ve rented to Catholic’s football players and other students, young professionals and others trying to keep up with soaring District rents, they said. They have tried to keep their costs low and have avoided being too ambitious in their overhauls.
But problems with the foundation at their house on Seventh Street NE, just down from the university and a towering new development at the Brookland Metro station, left cracked walls, and they needed to do something big.
They decided to hire Davies and her boss.
As Price sketched ideas and cost estimates for remaking the house, “I was like, ‘Stop what you’re doing. What is that number?’ ” Grace recalled. They couldn’t afford it.
Then “Travis kind of sits back from the table and says, ‘How about we do it with shipping containers?’ ”
They thought it was crazy.
Then they didn’t.
“I wanted to do this since I was in college myself,” Price said last week.
In the ’70s, as he pondered the question of “how to solve mass housing,” Price proposed building a 10-story steel frame for holding sea container homes — “like a kind of ‘Blade Runner’ look,” he said. It was supposed to be “plug-and-play,” meaning a family could detach the utilities and move. “You’re in a new city in your same house,” Price said.
He ended up putting the idea aside in favor of what he thought was a better one: building a “passive solar house,” which used sunlight and shade to light, heat and partially cool the space inside.
Now, he’s reached back into what he calls his “spiritual backpack” with a chance to figure out if building a sea container apartment really makes sense. While designers around the world have crafted creative dwellings out of containers in recent years, Price’s clients have balked once they have seen the cost of the radical modifications they expect in the simple rectangular structures.
Here, though, “we’re actually using those existing units, and we’re not violating them dramatically,” Price said. “That makes the difference. You cut and paste. We could be a lot more theatrical, but then you pay.”
Some longtime Brookland residents view the coming sea container house as part of a broader rush of development that has violated their neighborhood.
A couple of houses down, Ewan Brown is feeling surrounded. Since he arrived in 1990, a stream of neighbors have sold their properties to developers or rented out their homes to students. As a huge new apartment complex went up kitty-cornered from him, he felt the rumble of jackhammers, and more is coming.
“My house shakes. I feel powerless and useless,” Brown said. “You want to live in peace with your neighbors, but they’re not living in peace with me.”
Living in a container home has no appeal to him. He just wants to tend his tomatoes. When the next big development goes up across the street, “I know I’ll have to leave,” he said.
For Davies and the others behind the SeaUA project — a play on CUA, the abbreviation for Catholic University of America — the container apartment is a chance to make a beautiful and practical improvement to the neighborhood.
Davies and Grace met in Brookland, and Grace has a home there. The questions they ask themselves, Joiner said, are: Would we live here? And would we want our sister to live here? “It’s almost like the golden rule,” Joiner said.
Davies, the project architect, can sound euphoric describing what they’ve done to try to bring the rusted boxes to life. The container doors will be welded open, to create shade fins, and replaced by windows that stretch nearly nine feet from floor to ceiling. Another full-length window will sit opposite a mirrored wardrobe in each container/bedroom.
“It’s going to make the container feel like it’s not this long corridor. It’s a full explosion into the outdoors,” said Davies, 28.
Workers in Baltimore cut steel panels from the containers so there will be open space for a kitchen and living room when the containers are pushed together.
The containers will be on three levels, six containers per level, with a cellar unit. Each of the four floors is designed as a single apartment, each with six bedrooms and six bathrooms.
Walls to the outside from the main living areas will be made of a kind of translucent plastic that’s used for greenhouses. A stair tower and addition will be covered with the same Polygal material. “It’s like a giant night light,” Davies said.
The containers will have sound and heat insulation, birch plywood walls and the original marine-grade plywood floors that once carried cheap goods to American shores.
Older containers can sell for $2,000, though project backers won’t say how much they’re spending overall or charging for rent. The apartments are open to all but are being grabbed up by students from Catholic because of the convenience, Price said, and most of the units are spoken for.
“We budgeted a target that was very low compared to conventional construction, and we’re hitting it,” Price said. If they stay on pace, more radical things are possible, he said.
Small successes can beget bigger ones, Price said, just as the little solar house he built in the ’70s was followed by a million-square-foot version in Tennessee years later.
Price is searching for land along the Potomac for his next dream project: a multistory sea-container apartment complex floating on a massive barge connected to the land by a bridge.
“Sort of Sausalito meets Holland meets D.C., maybe down by the Nats,” Price said. “It’s sort of like Watergate for the masses, on water.”
City officials were noncommittal, saying that such ideas are fascinating but that they’d need to know more.
“When we’re presented with these kinds of questions, the first thing we’re going to do is see if the code will allow them,” said Matt Orlins, spokesman for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
After the containers are welded together this week, the remaining construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of August.
It’s an iron deadline.
“It’s more than a want. It’s a ‘better be’ on my end,” Davies said.
Grace and Davies are getting married in September and riding a Harley across the country for their honeymoon before flying back the day before Joiner’s wedding.