Over the shriek of a saw cutting into wood, I tell Mark Gelband, “Necessity breeds creativity.” His eyes light up as he looks around his home. “Exactly, yes,” Gelband says. “That’s what we’re doing here.” His low voice echoes in the large room we’re standing in, flooded in natural light and sparsely decorated with a bed, some shelving, a computer desk, sofa and table. The 46-year-old father of three has an energy and enthusiasm that trembles, like the colors at play in the lone painting on the wall.
Gelband’s home is located on a 50 by 200 foot lot in the Vermont subdivision of Boulder. What was once a 140-foot driveway has been replaced with an addition he built in 2008 after melding his family with that of his partner’s, Courtney Loveman. The addition is covered in a rusted corrugated metal siding, which along with repurposed barn wood used for ceilings and doors, speaks to the couple’s commitment to sustainability and creativity. The din of saws slicing metal overhead speaks volumes to it. A new addition is being built—one out of shipping containers.
“It’s really like a living art project for my family,” Gelband says as his teenage daughter pecks at a computer. Loud thuds and the trembling bass of an action flick plays in the distance. Gelband tells his son to turn it down. Overhead, a blue, 53-foot shipping container once used for China’s domestic rail service rests on the flat roof like some giant steel Lego.
From outside, the home resembles a confused mutant—the house equivalent to a centaur: half-horse, half-man. Anchored to the original 1950s ranch house is the 2008 addition. Above that, the container rests, hanging off the front in what will be a floating bedroom.
But the steel mass represents more than just a dichotomy of design, it’s a compromise between limitations. The container satisfies Gelband’s plan to build up and the city’s criteria for this second story addition—a prefab project that stirred debate from his neighbors.
“Basically my neighbors came out en masse and said we don’t want him to do anything,” Gelband said. “One of my neighbors said something like, ‘You’ve already egregiously harmed us by building the shipping container next to our house,’ and he was referring to that addition I had done and the fact that it was sided in rusted corrugated metal. I was just like, I’ll use that as inspiration.”
Prefab homes, often called modular homes, are just that: spaces made of prefabricated material. Gelband’s version is in contrast to the homes in architecture magazines like Dwell, which are built off site and pieced together on site like some immaculate 3-D puzzle. But Gelband is a self-described do-it-yourselfer and the shipping container mimics the lot’s dimensions and the city’s requirement set forth by the solar shadow ordinance. It also satisfies his drive to build it himself. He plans to demolish the original home and build on top of the 2008 addition.
Architect Mark Gerwing put it this way: “It’s going to be one great big room with shipping containers on top end-to-end.”
More specifically, the ground floor will house the living room, dining room and kitchen. Below the main entrance, what is now a basement will be converted into a bedroom. Two staircases will extend into the middle of each container, providing access to the upstairs rooms and to a patio that will separate the two containers. Three shorter containers will be used side-by-side for a garage. The container will be exposed as quasi-shutters, and as a reflection of the home’s story—one that’s still being written.
While the cutting and welding for the first container was done on site, the second is being carved into at a metal shop. It will be placed onto the house the same way as the other—by crane.
Climbing up the ladder to take a look inside the steel behemoth, sawdust stirs in the sunlight as Gelband says that, more than time, building with containers has saved him cash. “Beyond that, really the biggest savings is me operating as the general contractor in that I’m doing this with friends.” He added that a typical addition in Boulder would cost upwards to $400 per square foot. Using containers has lowered that cost by more than half.
As work continues, torn pieces of building material are thrown from the site like colossal confetti. Still, according to Gerwing, much is being salvaged. “In a typical construction site, you haul away dumpster after dumpster of waste,” he says. “In this case we’re using recycled material and we’re not hauling much away.” It’s another pro to add to the pile: In 2007, building-related construction and demolition waste totaled 160 million tons or two-thirds of solid waste generation.
Standing inside the future floating room, wind blows through the gaping holes that will soon be replaced by doors. Once finished, Gelband will insulate the mass with Supertherm, a ceramic-based coating used on rocket booster engines which disallows the conductivity of heat and cold through metal. Following that, the original house will be dismembered, salvaging the windows and flooring for future use.
Once complete, the home will be 2,400 square feet above ground and boast the same features as the current addition: well-insulated walls, tons of natural light and solar energy that powers the house and warms the water for ambient floor heating. That brings about a new set of challenges as Gelband considers what to do with the excess water his system heats.
“If we flip one of these containers and dig a hole with channels into the ground,” he muses, “We can disperse heat around a pool to heat it in the winter.” It’s just an idea, he adds. But the wheels are almost visibly turning in his head. The process begins again, necessity and creativity, living art, frustrating the neighbors. Or as Gelband calls it: “a play of the unexpected.”