Texas architect Jim Poteet helped Stacey Hill, who lives in a San Antonio artists’ community, wrangle an empty steel shipping container into a playhouse, a garden retreat and a guesthouse for visiting artists. The container measures a narrow and long 8 by 40 feet; Hill asked that a portion of the square footage be retained as a garden shed and the rest serve as the living space. The architect added floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows, heating and air-conditioning, a green roof, bamboo flooring and wallcovering, a small sink and shower and a composting toilet, and placed the structure on a base made from recycled telephone poles. “The container, as we call it, is a great escape for me because the space is pure, uncluttered, wonderfully sunlit, quiet and has a great view of my garden,” says Hill. “My two young daughters love it because it’s practically an empty box ready to play, create and pretend in.”
Check out the slideshow to see more images of the project.
While shopping for containers, Hill was instantly drawn to this one’s existing blue color and chose to buy it and leave it as is. Poteet added floor-to-ceiling sliding doors to allow light in, as well as a cantilevered overhang to shade a window on the left side, which houses a small garden storage area.
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Poteet replaced one wall with a large steel-and-glass lift-and-slide window wall, which he says makes the best use of indirect light. "The big sliding door and picture window make the 250-square-foot living space feel big," says Hill.
The architect and his team devised an armature on the back of the container that will eventually be covered with vines, concealing the AC and heating unit, the reservoir for graywater and the composting toilet outlet.
Jon Ahrens of Madrone Landscaping, who layed out the plantings around the container, implemented a green roof on a drip watering system. The cantilevered overhang at rear is planted with cacti.
Hill’s 1962 orange Mercury Monterey complements the blue of the container, whose original opening was retained on one end as the entrance to the garden storage shed.
The container was brought to the property by truck, then the architectural team rented a small crane for around $250 a day to rotate it until they found the right spot for it to rest.
"They use it as a summer house, an art house, and for entertaining; they set up and have dinner on the deck there, adjunct to Stacey’s main house," says Poteet.
Reeds grow from a tub outside the steel structure. "We capture the graywater from the sink and shower, and use it to water the plants in the garden," says Hill.
Since the only spot for a sink was within the main living space, Poteet designed a wide, sculptural basin that would integrate well into the interior, and added a Zurn faucet. The small step leads right into the shower and toilet area. The artworks are by San Antonio artists John Mata, Kimberly Aubuchon, Chris Sauter and Cruz Ortiz; the X came from an old Texaco sign.
"We noticed that the container says ART U on the side, which we thought was kind of cool," says Poteet.
"Stacey’s property abuts an artists’ colony, so she didn’t want the container to wall off her friends, so we used a bamboo hedge behind it as a way of protecting it from sun yet remaining welcoming to her neighbors."
"Stacey hopes that we can use this as a prototype for a development of artists’ studios someday—we talked about maybe siting several of them together, like an old mobile home park." The steel sculpture is by San Antonio artist George Shroeder.
Poteet sheathed the walls and floor in bamboo ply. "We went to the hardware store on our lunchbreak, looking for inexpensive ply, and they told us they had just gotten a shipment of bamboo ply that someone didn’t pick up, so we got lucky and got it for the same cost," says Poteet. "It’s renewable, really hard and as good for the floor as it is for the walls."
"In the beginning I really wanted the container to be off the grid but solar is still very expensive in San Antonio, especially for small spaces," says Hill. "The green roof was an element that I had not thought of at the beginning, but as it turns out saves me more money on air-conditioning than the solar would have, and is a lot prettier."
Friends of both the resident and the architect post up on the porch. Poteet attached beams to the container and topped them with a Polygal sheet for shade. The lamps were custom made by the architect from recycled tractor parts fitted with vapor lamps.
Poteet describes the space as "unbearably hot" before he used spray-foam insulation between the exterior walls and the interior bamboo. "Now it’s the equivalent of a steel ice chest," he says.
Maximizing space was of utmost importance in the 8-by-4-foot bathroom, which consists of an open shower in front of an electric composting toilet by Sun-Mar. Poteet and Hill chose a red sheet metal for the walls and laid down a non-slip epoxy flooring.