A Ruddy Shipping Container House Is Installed in New York in Only Two Days

With a prefab structure near Hudson, LOT-EK—the pioneers of shipping container architecture—make a new case for the genre.

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."

Turning a shipping container into a home is rarely as simple as it sounds, but design studio LOT-EK set out to prove that these vessels could become the raw material for an efficient prefab construction process with a house in upstate New York. Victoria Masters, Dave Sutton, and their daughter, Bowie, live in the six merged containers.

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.

In the open living/kitchen/dining area, the containers’ original apitong wood flooring, screened and sealed with a water-based sealant, complements the industrial austerity of the painted corrugated steel ceilings.

Two mustard Crescent swivel chairs and throw pillows from West Elm add a touch of color to the living area. A F7 foldaway side table by Fn Furniture (a local maker) sits between them. Under the chairs, a steel plate from the original shipping container reminds everyone what the house used to be. The fireplace is Fire Drum 2 by Malm and the firewood holder is by David DeSantis, while the rug is vintage.

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.

Victoria and her daughter, Bowie, along with the family dog, in the open kitchen/dining area.

In the kitchen, recycled PET cabinetry from IKEA and Corian countertops play to the upcycling element of LOT-EK's ethos. A Swell Wide pendant by Pablo Pardo illuminates a custom dining table by From the Source and the surrounding Redsmith dining chairs from Anthropologie.

The kitchen faucet is by Pfister. 

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.

"It took only two days for the house to come together. Everything was choreographed with such precision," says Dave. The bed frame is from Floyd Detroit.

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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All the bathrooms, including the downstairs powder room, feature white penny tiling.

A sliding glass door provides fresh air in one of three bedrooms.

A look at the downstairs powder room. The Lillången sink and cabinet from IKEA, while the faucet is from Kingston Brass and the medicine cabinet is by Kohler and the toilet is by Toto. 

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.

A staircase made of Cor-Ten steel leads to the home’s rooftop deck. "I just thought it was so unique to have a roof deck in the country," says Victoria. "In the winter, when there’s less foliage, we’ll be able to see clear to the Catskills."

A solo backyard container houses a photo studio and storage space. 

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."

Once the home’s prefab components had been delivered to the site and assembled, the couple recruited friends and family to help them build the front and back decks out of red mahogany. A custom outdoor dining table is surrounded by Lucinda Black Stacking Chairs from CB2.

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."

A large deck extends from the front of the home as well.

The ruddy Cor-Ten facade contrasts with its verdant surroundings.

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." 

Project Credits:

Architecture: LOT-EK / @lot_ek

Additional Architecture: Steven Kratchman Architect  

Construction: Craft Workshop

Additional Construction: Claverack Builders / @claverackbuilders

Structural Engineering: Silman 

Civil Engineering: Crawford & Associates  

Shipping Container Supplier: Integrated Equipment Sales 

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