Seth Rodewald-Bates would dispute the idea that the shipping-container house he and Elisabeth Davies share on Green Street in New Orleans' Carrollton neighborhood is “weird.”
“A little out of the ordinary, maybe, but weird? It depends on what you’re used to,” he said.
Visitors can decide for themselves today, when the house will be one of nine on the self-guided New Orleans Weird Homes Tour.
The tour spotlights innovative design in Austin, Houston and now New Orleans for the benefit of local housing nonprofits. Ten percent of Saturday's ticket proceeds will benefit the affordable housing partnership HousingNOLA.
"I had been looking into the idea (of a container house) ever since I was in grad school in landscape architecture at LSU," Rodewald-Bates said. "There’s an architecture firm called LO-TEK that had used shipping containers as a material in the late '90s and early '00s.”
Grow Dat Youth Farm has constructed a complex of containers in City Park, and there are a couple of houses made of containers in Mid-City and Central City. The idea was popular among architecture schools considering inexpensive and fast replacement housing options post-Katrina, but never really caught on here on a major scale.
“Ironically enough, when Elisabeth and I decided to build with shipping containers, no one else thought it was a good idea. Most people thought we were crazy, even our friends in the design world,” Rodewald-Bates said. “I'd say most were pleasantly surprised that it turned out so well.”
If I had a hammer...
Shipping containers were also used to build Kicker Kalozdi’s house on Rousseau Street in the Irish Channel, another house on the tour. Kalozdi, who designs and manufactures bags as “Damndog,” also used his designer’s creativity to build a three-story high home, now under construction.
“The lot was small and my fiancée and I wanted to be able to see the river, so we went up,” he explained. “I had no construction experience at all when we got started — I had to go out and buy a hammer! “
In all, the Rousseau Street house is made of seven shipping containers — four for the first floor, two for the second and one for the third — and measures about 2,000 square feet.
“Containers are 8 feet wide, 9 feet tall and 40 feet long,” Kalozdi explained. “Eight feet is really narrow, so that’s why we put them together. I got out the graph paper and started drawing.”
On Green Street in Carrollton, Rodewald-Bates and Davies took a different approach.
“We worked with architect Byron Mouton of BILD, who, incidentally, told us we wouldn’t save money using containers rather than a traditional building method. But we liked the aesthetic,” Rodewald-Bates said.
A glowing cube
Mouton designed a cube, faced with translucent sheets of polycarbonate that connects to two containers — one in front and the other in the rear. At night, the cube glows. The entry to the house is via steps up to the porch and into the cube, where the living room is located. Forward of the cube, a container holds the bedroom, bath and galley kitchen. Behind the cube is what the owner calls a flex space that serves as a dining room and library. In all, the house measures 762 square feet.
“I have a book problem — there’s nothing to be done about it — so I built huge bookcases for the flex space,” he said. “We wanted a lot of light but didn’t want to have to cut into the containers. We installed glass behind the metal container doors so that when they are open, light flows through the space.”
For Kalozdi, on the other hand, windows were a must, even if they did require a welder to carefully cut into the steel walls of the container and a special mechanism, made off-site, that ensured windows would fit even even if the holes weren’t cut perfectly.
“We now have a virtual Rolodex filled with names of welders and other subs,” Kalozdi said.
Kalozdi said that he was surprised at how receptive the Historic District Landmarks Commission was to the project.
“Sure, there were regulations and rules to abide by, but overall it was a great experience,” he said. “They suggested we make a courtyard, and were really glad we did. It seemed as though they were as excited as we were to see how it turned out.”
Nothing to hide
Both owners said they were dedicated to the idea of being honest that their homes are composed of shipping containers.
“Some folks use shipping containers but then they add siding and try to disguise it,” Kalozdi said. “But part of my motivation was to build a hurricane-ready house that would not have siding ripped off. That, plus we really like the aesthetic.”
Also on the tour: the home of Sally Glassman and Pres Kabacoff in Bywater, billed as "Home of the Vodou Priestess"; painter Brent Houzenga's pop-art-crammed home in Lakeview, and Ms. Mae's Casket House on Pleasant Street Uptown, furnished with repurposed funerary equipment by the late, legendary bar owner.
Affordability was an initial motivation for the container-home builders, although the project, as predicted, ended up costing about as much as going the traditional route.
“We were thinking about affordable housing even before real estate prices went really crazy in town, because the reality is that families making median income cannot afford a $300,000 home,” Rodewald-Bates said. “We were hoping to show that you could live well, albeit small, for a reasonable amount of money. I don't know if we were successful in that, but the containers themselves were interesting from a standpoint of context — in a port city like ours, it’s intriguing for them to be upcycled into housing at the end of their shipping life cycle.”
And as Kalozdi put it, “It’s amazing to be on a deck on the third floor of the house and watching barges weighed down with containers go by all day long. I love that connection.”
Weird Homes Tour
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11