Railroad Revival

It isn't often that your eight-year-old son helps you decide on an architect, but that is how homeowners Connie DeWitt and Kam Kasravi became well-acquainted with architect David Fenster of Modulus—their sons are good friends. DeWitt also credits her son, Kyler, with their new weekend getaway on an 11-acre parcel of redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"I can blame it on my son," DeWitt laughs. "I grew up in upstate New York and I ran around the woods all the time. I wanted Kyler to have the same experience, which we couldn't replicate in San Jose."

After purchasing the land, DeWitt began researching prefabricated, modern structures, but quickly ran into logistical problems. To access the property, the delivery trucks would have had to fit through narrow, winding roads, and prefab modules were simply too big. More research led DeWitt to shipping containers as a viable option. "Metal really appeals to me, especially in a wooded environment where moss and rot can occur,"she says. "We also liked the idea of using this metal box that has traveled across the oceans for miles."

Although working with shipping containers was a first for Fenster, he gamely tackled the project with DeWitt and Kasravi. Fenster spent time on the property, and even camped out on it with them to become familiar with the site. "I don't think a lot of architects would spend a night on the property to understand how the lighting works," says DeWitt. "But it made a huge difference."

He began by selecting a site that would require minimum landscaping and fit the containers to the site. A raised foundation eliminated the need for heavy grading, and the redwood felled from the site was then milled into the home's stairs and ceiling treatment. A simple stacked arrangement eliminated the need for pricey structure additives and took advantage of the container's durability.

To reduce costs and emphasize the beauty of the industrial materials, Fenster left the exteriors as is, covered the interior walls with gypsum board, and re-finished the apatong plywood along the bottom of the containers to create custom hard-wood floors.

The resulting 1,200-square-foot structure, a neat pile of six units with a light-filled glass "spine" running through the center, are a testament to Fenster's careful planning. This past fall, Santa Clara AIA issued Modulus a Design Citation Award for Six Oaks, the only residential property to receive one.

"We wanted to show that it was a shipping container structure, but at the same time you don’t want to live in a box. My goal was to create a beautiful home first, and a shipping container home second," explains Fenster.

Click through the slideshow to learn more about Six Oaks.

The site is located near the old South Pacific Coast Railroad Line, a factor that led DeWitt to ultimately choose shipping containers. "In a way, they are the modern great-granddaughters of the trains that used to pass by here: metal boxes used for transportation," muses DeWitt.

The metal grating floor on the second story allows light to filter through to the first level (living room shown). "You can sit or lay on the couch and see a 180-degree slice of the earth that you would just never see otherwise. It’s a different perspective of the world," says DeWitt.

A close-up shot of the glass "spine." Fenster placed the units four feet apart from each other to allow light into the home. The grated bridge continues through the home to the outside path, integrating the structure with its landscape.

Fenster purchased the three shipping containers from and had them fabricated at ConGlobal in Oakland, California. "We didn’t realize that most people don’t actually use used shipping containers, which eliminates the recycling aspect of it. We went with high B-grade containers," he says.

The kitchen is only eight by twelve feet, but Fenster carefully oriented the cooking and food-prep areas diagonally to make it feel roomy and open. The French and sliding doors provide ample light throughout the day.

"We relied on different-sized windows and a varied the placement of the windows. Rather than place a big glass wall, we used the windows to craft views of the property. If you want to see outside go outside, but inside, the framed views let you see everything differently," explains Fenster.

The interior metal grating motif is continued in these stairs made out of redwood from a tree on-site. A centrally located gas fireplace distributes heat evenly throughout the home as an energy-saving measure.

Here's a drawing of the home. It ultimately came to $225 per square foot, which falls on the lower end of custom construction costs in Northern California.

A diagram of the home outlines its sustainable aspects, including LED lighting and an Advantex septic system that has no environmental impact.


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