Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Maine's "Other" Modular Manufacturer

Looking for an office or home that pops out of the box, ready to "plug and play? A new architectural trend in Maine is the box.

Shipping containers — those neatly stackable, heavy-gauge, corrugated steel units on ships, loaded with goods destined for ports around the world — are strong and ready to convert to a home, office space, extra storage or even a smoothie stand. On the factory floor, they are wired, plumbed, dry-walled, insulated, painted and finished to the buyer's specification.


One business opting for this new, modular style of construction is Westar Trucking in Houlton, ME. A year ago, Westar had SnapSpace Solutions of Brewer, ME design and build an office building fashioned from four shipping containers. The building included two central office spaces, four private offices, two kitchenettes, 1.5 bathrooms and a common space with a second-story outside deck.

"It is a nice, efficient and fast way to build. It's warm and well-insulated," says Westar dispatcher-and-broker Larry Ross. "We get some terrible weather in Maine, and this really was an enticement. There's no draft, and they're almost soundproof. It went up quickly, and there was very little site prep needed."


SnapSpace, which was launched by Walton in 2011, today is based in a 126,000-square-foot plant — not in a building made of shipping containers, but in Brewer's former Lemforder Corp. manufacturing site.

From there, SnapSpace uses local labor and subcontractors for in-house fabrication.

In the early days, SnapSpace occupied a 4,500-square-foot former steel construction building in Bangor, ME. Walton got his idea for SnapSpace when, needing more space for container fabrication, he joined five containers to the existing building, and increased the footprint, all with little hassle.

"It was a temporary space, and it was a very simple expansion to do," Walton says.
After the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, Walton starting thinking about using containers as alternatives to emergency mobile homes — better, he says, because they are storm-proof.

In March 2011, SnapSpace landed its first official container project, for the Eastport Port Authority. The port's contractor, Hershey Equipment, sought a contractor to build two facilities. The buildings had to be robust, low-maintenance, and suitable for the windy marine environment. The control space had to fit on top of a rock ledge, overlooking the port. SnapSpace fulfilled the requirements with two container projects, 20 feet and 40 feet, respectively, customized at the SnapSpace plant and transported to Eastport.

Standardized shipping containers date to 1956, according to the World Shipping Council, which is based in Washington, D.C. For thousands of years previously, "break-bulk" shipping used barrels, sacks and wooden crates. A North Carolina trucking entrepreneur changed all that when he reinforced the deck of a World War II tanker to transport 58 metal boxes from Newark, N.J., to Houston, Texas. Transportation industries quickly adapted. Today, millions of containers travel the world.

However, a large portion entering domestic ports never leave, due to lopsided import/export ratios. "If you import, say, computers from Japan, and there's nothing to ship back out, the containers sit there empty," says Walton. Walton gets his containers from New Jersey, at an average of $3,500 each, plus freight.

To convert a shipping container to a finished home costs about $77 per square foot, versus the $130-plus for conventional building, Walton says. Part of the savings is due to the efficiency of constructing the project in a controlled environment. One crew cuts and frames out window and door openings, while other crews install drywall, studs, wiring, plumbing, sprayfoam-insulation and handle exterior improvements.

"Cargotecture," as it's called, does pose challenges. Once you cut and weld steel, it's difficult to change something, unlike wood construction. Also, there are a lot of variations in the containers if you're mating two containers. It's like parking a Chevy beside a Ford. The difference between manufacturers can be significant.

Then there's consumer perception. "Can you picture living in a container? Once you've experienced being in one, it's a whole different story," Walton says. "The main issue is educating consumers on the viability of the shipping container home."

Cargotecture is popping up around the world. Las Vegas has Container City. In San Francisco, a cargotecture development includes a high-end clothing store, coffee shop, ice-cream parlor and beer garden.

SnapSpace is also attracting attention outside Maine. A 20-foot smoothie bar, with two rolling doors, went to a Montreal amusement park. A concession stand with attached restrooms is destined for a Bethlehem, Pa., skateboard park.

"It will be the first container building, that I know of, that will have a curved outside wall on it," Walton says.

He's received inquiries about multiple-housing complexes, including a 2,000-unit assisted-living facility, and office space from around the United States, Canada and beyond. 

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