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Local company gives shipping containers a new lease on life

Posted by Meghan Walker on January 29th, 2013

By SARAH DEVLEMING, UW News Lab

Kai Schwarz and Anne Corning are business partners and co-founders of ShelterKraft Werks, a unique Ballard business venture that manufactures homes, food-storage units, retail pop-up stores and more from reclaimed shipping containers.

The company takes shipping containers that no longer meet the proper qualifications to be used on a ship—this usually happens after about 10 years, when the container has been banged around one too many times—and refurbishes them into something practical and livable. Some companies, such as Hamburg Süd, keep the containers for nearly half that time.

“We only keep them for five years,” a representative for Hamburg Süd said. “(The way)they stack them, the rivets get worn out.”

Corning said that for their purposes, “We pick the best ones that are still in good enough condition to be used for housing … and then we build the units all right here in Seattle.”

According to Schwarz, the original container company does the majority of the metal fabrication and painting. From there, the container is brought to ShelterKraft Werk’s yard in Ballard where it gets retrofitted for its new purpose.

If a container is destined to become housing, “that’s [when] we put in all the framing,insulation, the wiring, the plumbing,” Schwarz said. These items all go into the walls of the container.

“It’s not just that you’re saving [money]. You’re re-using the steel container, we’re using a lot of green building materials, and recyclable materials … in the construction of the units,” Corning said. “As (an) ongoing living situation it can be very eco-friendly, very affordable.”

The company offers four stock home models, in addition to custom storage containers and backyard workshops. The containers come in two lengths, 20 foot and 40 foot. Although every container is 8 feet wide, the containers can be linked together in a number of ways.

ShelterKraft Werks offers many different ways to customize the compact homes,including solar panels, decks, carports and other design modifications.

The stock homes range from having just a sleeping nook to a full master suite, and start at $35,000 for something called a “CargoCottage,” which is their base model with one bedroom. The biggest container home is $68,000 and is a two-bedroom “CargoHaus” with a master-suite. Here’s the full rundown of residential home options.

ShelterKraft Werks was incorporated in January 2011. Since then, Schwarz and Corning have developed their business to include doing custom projects and working with local nonprofit companies, including Clean Greens, a business dedicated to growing and delivering healthy, fresh produce to low-income families.

Schwarz, who worked as an architect for Starbucks for three years, had a ninth-floor office that looked out toward the shipping docks in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood.Countless shipping containers came and went in those yards.

“I kept starting to fantasize about if I snuck inside one of those Hamburg Süd containers,I would be 5 kilometers from my grandmother’s house in Hamburg in a couple of months,” Schwarz said. “But I’d need a bed, and a toilet and a TV.”

When Schwarz met Corning about three years ago, her keen business instincts complemented Schwarz’s vast architectural knowledge, and ShelterKraft Werks was born.

As for ShelterKraft Werk’s next venture, Schwarz and Corning hope to create a hygiene station that can be used by homeless and low-income individuals living out of their cars.The station would appeal to those with day jobs whose income covers gas, food and other supplies, but doesn’t leave enough for housing.

“They’re hardworking folks who deserve to take a shower before work,” Corning said.

(SARAH DEVLEMING is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)

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