As modern architecture finds an audience in the District, architect Travis Price has been busier than usual shaping metal, glass and wood into single-family houses and multi-family buildings throughout the city. A drive through Forest Hills reveals many of his angular structures, often made with artfully corroded copper, jutting out from behind tree branches.
Most recently, Price constructed a four-unit apartment building out of steel shipping containers in Brookland. The project delivered in 2014.
Now, Price, along with developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC), says he hopes to bring another shipping container creation to the city. NDC and Price submitted a proposal to D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to create a 22-unit condo building on a city-owned plot of land at 1600 Gales St. NE, just east of the H Street corridor. The three-bedroom units would be sized at 1,200 square feet and aimed at families.
Forty percent of the units would be offered as affordable housing; half would be held for those making 50 percent of the area median income — approximately $107,000 — and the other half will be offered to those making between 50 and 80 percent of AMI.
Price spoke with The Post about his newest proposal and the state of modern architecture in the District.
Why were you drawn to shipping containers as a material for housing?
One reason is that we have 750,000 of them sitting fallow in the United States alone. They are not going back. We’re not shipping anything out, and it costs less to make a new one in Asia and to ship new iPads with it than to send one back.
Culturally, we have also grown to love steel, glass and wood — dry materials and a warm, modern aesthetic. People now prefer the IKEA look. Sea containers are the perfect fit.
I call them “high-performance housing.” They are weather-tight, can be outfitted to be off-grid, and they are a faster way to build. You can build at a third of the cost in half the time; a building can go up in six months. It’s Legos-meet-luxury high-rise modern living.
How do you transform a shipping container into a home? How do you work with the materials?
The containers are simply a new building module. It is wood, steel and glass, at 8 by 40 feet. We have 9-foot ceilings, and rooms that go from 8-feet wide to 16-feet wide, or even 24-feet wide.
Cutting, sandblasting and painting is step one. The we get the fresh box to the site and mount it. The third, most expensive phase involves “fitting out the container interior” and hooking up utilities.
The corrugated steel that the container is made out of is one of the strongest steels available; I could not justify that level of steel for a new building. It’s made to withstand gale-force winds. This will last for decades, whereas brick houses will crumble.
These are containers, and they are one big structural element. If you cut away certain areas, you are fine, but cut others and you are destroying the structural integrity, so there is one really important ingredient: They have to sit on their four corners. You’ll see a lot of people doing containers flying through the sky — that kind of thing is easy for architects to do, but it’s very costly.
We tend to outfit our houses in maple plywood because it is easy, durable and warm. The wood creates warmth within a modern structure.
If you obey the structural integrity and become playful with how you cut and paste and place it, you can maintain a low-cost, high performance dwelling.
How do the costs compare, exactly?
A raw container generally costs between $2,500 and $4,500 before it is land shipped. The costs then add up from there. The final package can land you anywhere from $145 to $165 per square foot, depending on your interior choices.
In typical construction, at least 50 to 60 percent of the building costs can be the outer shell work; in this case, the outer shell is more like 15 percent of the total cost.
I have to tout the ecological good as well: We have high insulation values, and energy bills will be a pittance. We will be approaching the lowest fuel bills in the city.
Do you feel that D.C. is turning some kind of corner in regards to being open to modern architecture? Is the audience there?
Oh God, yes.
The modernism you are seeing here is first grade. Look at CityCenterDC! That’s Norman Foster, the premier English architect who designed the British Museum. You’re talking about seriously powerful forces coming in.
One thing D.C. has always been really good at is authenticity; there’s a historic reference here that is authentic. What they’ve been really bad at is Disney-fying and trying to replicate that historicism. Everything reads as fake. Now you have first-class, modern residential homes going up, with a higher quality to them.
The audience is also overdue. The hard part for most people about absorbing modernism is that they imagine this early-Bauhaus, sterile, dramatic, cold aesthetic. That’s all changed in the past 20 years. There is now warm, friendly, sustainable modern design.
D.C’s first shipping container building delivered in 2014, in Brookland. What has been the response since then? Can you tell me more about the new project?
We are doing 10 other projects across the country right now, from Alaska to L.A. to South Carolina. You can’t imagine how many cities are jumping on this. We just had a long conversation with the deputy mayor of L.A. about affordable homes for veterans — a veterans village downtown. [Shipping container housing] is hitting the mainstream.
The new project is very exciting, because we’re working with a local developer, NDC, who has experience with affordable housing in the city. These are three-bedroom condos, for purchase by a different user group [than the Brookland project]. We are also offering amenities like a public park.
That neighborhood [Rosedale] is growing; they don’t want more millennial housing. Families are moving in, and that’s a fantastic statement for the city, and a big, big ecological good.
If the city gives us the green light, we should be able to finish in nine months.
Do you have any other shipping container projects planned in D.C.?
We have three or four others, but we can’t disclose them yet.
I have these visions of building steel frames around the country, with jack-pump elevators plugging and unplugging shipping containers. Say you want to move from Chicago to Atlanta — I unplug my entire house, it goes down the elevator, onto a track and three months later I’m living in the same house.
I also want to go down by The Yards and float big, repurposed barges, and make a sea container village. You can have luxury, sea container housing on the Potomac River. I introduced the idea to a church group as a way to help the homeless: Let’s have a container village that floats up to the dock every night. Everyone gets to sleep on board, shower and then come back into the neighborhood every day.
Shilpi Malinowski is a freelance writer.