An 'Epic' Container Co-op

The good folks at Epic Software are building a video production studio out of old shipping containers just outside of Houston, Texas. They're also dutifully documenting the Creative Co-op's construction process from permitting to pouring the foundation on their blog. Epic's shipping container saga has humble beginnings: The design was initially developed using Google Sketchup and Vic Cherubini—the man at the helm of Epic—found his architect by posting an ad on Craigslist. Their overarching plan has been to use upcycled, recycled, and sustainable materials wherever possible. Vic answered a few of our burning questions, telling about the difficult and rewarding aspects of the project, and why sometimes the best design tools are free.

How did the project come about?
Epic does 3D animation, multimedia, web development and commercial photography and this year we are celebrating our 20th anniversary. In the late 90’s we hit a growth spurt and used the money we made to buy 4 acres of land and had a studio built on it. We only needed a small part of the land, so I wanted to determine what the best use of the property would be.

I needed a land use plan, so I called the Dean at the University of Houston, College of Architecture, and he put me in touch with Professor Tom Diehl. Mr. Diehl’s 4th year architectural students need to do two community projects – one urban and one rural. We were the rural project for that semester. Tom came out to the epic property with his class and we walked the land and I answered their questions. We divided the class into 3 teams, and like the popular show “The Apprentice”. I would judge the results. I said I would buy dinner for the winning team.

About a month after the site visit, Tom called and said the students had their boards ready, and they would formally present them to me at the College. I was simply blown away by the results. These student teams had gone way over the top. They did intensive research (demographic, economic, psychographic, etc.), and the visuals they created were stunning. I could not make up my mind on a winning team, since each had far exceeded my expectations. I said I would buy dinner for everyone, and their choice surprised me as well - pizza - with extra toppings!
You mentioned using shipping containers stemmed from a desire to be "different." What in particular drew you to them?
One idea that was included in each team’s presentation was the use of Cargo Containers as building structures. I got excited about the idea, and we did a small project in 2006 with one 40’ hi cube container and I loved the way it turned out. When it came time to build our new video production studio, we called in a salesman from a metal building company. He came by with a quote for “…a standard metal building – like you see everywhere”. That turned me off. I don’t want a building “Like everyone else’s”. I want one that gets you excited about coming to work in the morning so we turned to cargo containers and that got the juices flowing.

When it came time to design the building, we hired two architects who had Mr. Diehl as an instructor when they were in school. We went through 68 iterations with them until we settled on the one we are now building.
You've been regularly blogging about this project since 2009. What do you hope people will gain from reading about it?
The internet is an incredible source for learning from the experiences of others who are willing to share. In doing my research for the project, I typically found a little bit of information in a lot of different places, but was not able to find any site that took me through the development of a commercial container project step-by-step. I am hoping that my blog would be that source of information (and hopefully) inspiration for others. While I am not an engineer, architect, or construction manager (I hired people with those skills), the blog may help to shed some light on how we solved the challenges that come with building a structure from eleven used cargo containers.
Using Google Sketchup, finding your architect through Craigslist, and your blog give the project a kind of DIY sensibility. Was that part of your intent?
Yes—part of the reason for building the epic Creative Co-Op is that I wanted to understand exactly how a building goes together, and to get my hands dirty in the process. The other part is that money for commercial projects is incredibly tight, and for a “weird” building (in the words of one banker) like ours, virtually impossible to come by. If this dream was going to become a reality, it would have to happen with sweat equity, savings, and by buying used or surplus materials whenever possible. We are a 3D animation shop and use some very sophisticated software, but for this job Google Sketchup is simply the best (and the basic version is free).
What has been the most difficult aspect of the project?
This is a commercial building has to meet a number of building codes that do not apply to residential construction. This has resulted in additional costs that exceeded our initial estimates. We had some weather delays in January – but that has not been a factor. Usually shipping containers are in great abundance, except this year there is a world shortage driving up the price of each unit from $1900 (early in 2010) to $2400 (in September of 2010). On the other hand, the construction market is soft, so labor is in abundance, and the quality of the work is very good.
And the most rewarding?
For the most part, our work at Epic comes down to moving pixels around on the screen. At the end of the day, everything in the office looks the same as when we came in. The new building on the other hand, is physical and it is fun to watch it change and evolve on a daily basis. I really look forward to updating the blog to document these changes.
What has your community's response been?
From the local community it has been really good. We have also received a number of emails from people interested in using shipping containers for all kinds of things. At the conclusion of the project we are going to offer a three hour Lunch and Learn workshop on a Saturday for those who are really serious about taking their ideas from concept to completion.

For more information about the lunch and learn, please visit Vic's blog.

To see photographs of the projects, view the slideshow.

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