It was in the early 1990s that Giuseppe Lignano and Ada Tolla, lifelong friends and founding partners of the design firm LOT-EK, stumbled on a giant depot of shipping containers in (where else?) New Jersey.
"We immediately saw a huge potential in this object, from both an ecological and an artistic perspective," says Lignano of their realization that the ubiquitous vessels could be upcycled into architectural building blocks. "But we didn’t know anything about containers when we first started playing with them."
For 27 years, the firm has been "playing" with extraordinary results: multiple national and international awards, exhibitions at the Whitney and MoMA, and a reputation within the architecture and design community as the progenitors of the shipping container typology.
In that time, a fad for shipping container architecture has experienced an arc of popularity, with designers slicing and dicing containers more for the novelty than out of an interest in creating a sustainable recycling process. And once you begin cutting into them and adding structure and insulation, shipping container conversions can be an ironically wasteful way to build a house.
But Lignano and Tolla still assert that the goal of these conversions is to reduce construction waste and upcycle a by-product of our appetite for consumer goods. To that end, they say their process is more sculptural than most. They treat each container as a malleable raw material, carving into it like a block of marble without undermining its integrity.
To date, all of LOT-EK’s shipping container projects have been one-off commissions or competition entries. Now, with a 1,920-square-foot prototype near Hudson, New York, the pioneers are setting out to prove that the potential they saw decades ago can become a scalable process for turning shipping containers into prefab houses.
Home to ex-Brooklynites Victoria Masters and Dave Sutton and their daughter, Bowie, the model residence, known as c-Home, is at the end of a long gravel driveway off a country road lined with organic farms and hardwood forests. With its ruddy Cor-Ten facade standing out against all the greenery, the home comprises six containers stacked two-by-three in a neat rectangle.
Some of the walls were shaved off to create a two-story, open-plan interior. The perimeter walls were built out with six inches of insulation and cover the home’s mechanical systems. Windows are set into dramatic angled cuts that slash through the house’s long sides in opposite directions. All of the alterations to the containers—as well as kitchen and bathroom fit-outs and many of the interior finishes— were done at a facility in New Jersey. The components were assembled and waterproofed on-site in two days.
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Inside, the first floor is a roomy open plan with twin staircases leading up to the couple’s bedroom and bath on one side and Bowie’s room, a guest room, and a second bath on the other. The containers’ patinated steel support columns subtly delineate the arrangement of rooms and complement an otherwise neutral color palette.
"In Brooklyn, we always liked the rougher look of unfinished surfaces and industrial elements," says Victoria.
As with any first-time endeavor, there were unforeseen problems. The city of Hudson doesn’t have codes that c-Home easily fits into, so the project’s structural engineer needed to go into detail about the steel construction during the permitting process, and inspections had to be timed to occur just as the prefab pieces were being put into place.
The walls were closed before the team fully tested the plumbing, which led to a fragrant solution: "We had to pour a peppermint oil punch down our drains and go sniffing around the house to make sure water was running," recounts Victoria, with a laugh. "It definitely was a learning process for everyone."
Finished in the fall of 2019, c-Home has provided a good place for Victoria and Dave to safely wait out the pandemic. In that time, Victoria has been developing a farmsteading project she calls Fieldmakers, in which people with a curiosity about self-sustainability and healthy eating can bunk in a shipping container cabin designed by LOT-EK and have a hands-on farming experience.
For now, though, the couple are focused on their home. "This house really is a manifestation of our dream," says Victoria. "We wanted a place that felt open, involved in the natural surroundings. Now, in these past few months, we’ve been working on making it ours."
This year, LOT-EK partnered with marketer Grant Gudgel (LOT-EK architect Virginie Stolz is also a cofounder) to launch c-Home USA. The new company has now begun taking orders for container homes based on the prototype. For Tolla, it represents the realization of a long-simmering ambition. "There are a lot of companies out there that have smelled the fact that you can make money doing basic transformations of containers," she says. "To do something much more evolved, like this, you have to have the ability and the will. It takes vision."
Additional Architecture: Steven Kratchman Architect
Construction: Craft Workshop
Structural Engineering: Silman
Civil Engineering: Crawford & Associates
Shipping Container Supplier: Integrated Equipment Sales
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