On Monday morning, there were a few concrete-and-steel pillars and crumbling brick walls. By Wednesday afternoon, Washington had an apartment building made of shipping containers. By Friday, window fitters and interior framers were buzzing inside.

Cast-off-container buildings have gone up around the world for years. But watching any building go up so fast sent a jolt of almost giddy adrenaline – and a measure of relief – through even grizzled workers who have seen it all.

After the first of the 18 containers was hoisted into place by a 400-ton crane this week near Washington’s Catholic University, structural engineer George Runkle of Lawrenceville, Ga. leapt inside and bounced a bit, a little superstitious test of all the heavy-duty load calculations he made for the project.

“My stress level’s disappearing,” Runkle said. “It all fits together as it’s supposed to. That’s always the nerve-wracking part for me: Will the corners fit in the right place? I haven’t had it not work yet, but it scares me.”

The steel boxes, retired from the millions that crisscross oceans, are a flexible building material. Runkle learned to work with them in Uzbekistan in 2002, and has since built “man camps” for oil extractors in Canada and a 5-story mock hotel and Middle Eastern market place for law-enforcement and anti-terrorism training.

There are high-end houses for the well-healed and buried bunkers for the paranoid.

“I even made a chicken coop out of a container. A chicken coop! The lady wanted windows and everything,” said project welder Steven Dove. “You can do all kinds of stuff with them. It really turned out nice.”

The backers behind the Washington project – four apartments (including one in the cellar) with six bedrooms apiece that are being snapped up by university students – are testing whether high-end design and tight budgets can lead to practical insights for affordable housing.

“I don’t think it’s a gimmicky thing. If you can work within the constraints of the container, and design around that, I think it’s a great solution,” said Matthew Hetrick, who heads custom projects at Cube Depot, a California based company that oversaw efforts to slice open and rehab the containers to let in more light. “At the end of the day, you have to really like the container aesthetic.”

Workers are racing to finish the building by the end of August, just in time for a pair of the project’s partners, architect Kelly Davies and developer Matthew Grace, to get married.
By Friday, the site was humming.

“It’s a big party,” Davies said. “The window guys are there. The concrete guys are there. The plumbers, the framers. The electrical is starting Monday. The heating and cooling, they’re starting Monday as well.”

It’s a little out of the ordinary to have everyone on top of each other all at once, she said, but she warned them ahead of time and the crew seems jazzed. Some are bringing their spouses by to see what they’re doing.

There were a few improvisations as the containers were stacked and welded.

They were all supposed to be grey-blue, the color of a navy ship, accept for the front right one, which was to be cobalt. But it was the back right one that arrived cobalt.

Davies had a crew in Baltimore paint the front one cobalt too, and she loves the affect.

“It was a perfect mistake that now they’re both blue,” Davies said.

Moments after the 18th and final container went up Wednesday, the 400-ton crane – whose operators had eased the 8-by-40 foot boxes over power lines and houses and gently into place – broke down.

Some electrical problem. It was stuck there for hours. “The city’s like, You’ve got to move this,” Davies said. They finally did, clearing out by about 11 p.m.

The building was up, and they were on their way.