Cargo Containers as Houses? Possibly in Warren

WARREN, Ohio — It was a chance encounter that brought together Jeff Sanders, a counselor at First Step Recovery in Warren, and Edward Wiklinski, principal of Red House Projects in Cleveland.

Earlier this year – Sanders says he doesn’t remember exactly when, just that “it was cold and not long after New Year’s” – Sanders was speaking in a church in Cleveland. Wiklinski was in the audience and afterward talked to the counselor.

The two exchanged information and, a while later, met in Warren. It was there that the architect presented his plans for a house built from steel shipping containers.

“I remember blurting out without even thinking, ‘If you get that land, I’ll build you a house,’ ” Wiklinski says. “That’s exactly what I’ve been doing with my company and it’s what I’ve wanted to design and build. There are things much bigger than luxury townhomes that can increase the quality of life for more than one person.”

The house, consisting of six 8-by-40-foot cargo containers, will be built on three lots at Vine Avenue NE and Porter Street NE in Warren’s Garden District. The land, held by the Trumbull County Land Bank, is home to a small community garden.

“We were looking to do new and creative things with our properties. We do traditional very well, but it’s fun to do splashes of public art and gardens,” says Lisa Ramsey, assistant director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership. “The idea of doing something this out-of-the-box is a fun challenge.”

TNP operates the land bank.

Wiklinski says he had heard about the progress of revitalization efforts in the Mahoning Valley. Designing a residence made from shipping containers wasn’t as far removed from Red House Projects’ previous work as it first seemed, he says.

“This is not a stretch from what I’ve been doing other than it’s a different model that brings a more modern design to the townhome,” Wiklinski explains. “This is a chance to provide a re-use of land and housing for people at a price that’s accessible to anybody.”

For all involved, the use of recycled containers – to be purchased from vendors in Ohio – is a major aspect of the project. “I like the proposed use of recyclable materials,” Sanders says. “It fits with my life story and with rehabilitation. What happens when you go through rehab is that you kind of get recycled.”

Sanders is a recovering drug and alcohol addict. When he was 20, he broke his neck and has since been confined to a wheelchair.

“What I thought was going to be my place in life changed drastically,” he says. “I like to think that a lot of people in the Warren area were responsible for helping recycle me.”

In addition to a house made of recycled containers becoming his home, Sanders plans to extend his work at First Step to the Garden District, noting that anyone “down and out or in need” will almost always find a light on. Several residents in the neighborhood have said drug use and prostitution is prevalent in the area. His idea ties back into recycling, he explains.

“There are a lot of things here that people might look at as not useful when they do still have a use, Sanders says. “It might not be what it was intended in the first place, but there’s a use. I look at people almost – although it’s not the best metaphor – as an aluminum can that can be recycled.”

TNP’s work is focused heavily on the Garden District, which is just a few blocks from downtown Warren. The organization has razed or renovated a growing number of houses and been instrumental in starting several community gardens and art projects.

“The publicity alone adds to the awareness of what’s going on in that neighborhood,” Ramsey says. “Any time we do a project like this, we get more and more visitors to the neighborhood. And they see that it’s turning the corner.”

While those involved are excited about the impact Sanders and the project will have on the community, it is still, after all, his home. Renovating a house in the Garden District was never an option, the three say, because the century-old houses have two or three stories and were built with narrow hallways.

The shipping container house will have an open floor plan on the top floor – a ramp and elevator will be installed to help Sanders get up from the garage level – with the only permanent fixture being a U-shaped kitchen and a bathroom that share a wall. To divide the remaining space, Red House will install moveable walls that can easily be rearranged.

“We’ve designed some walls that are interlocking, almost like a Lego system, and on wheels so he can, while in his chair, put them all together and arrange them into rooms,” Wiklinski says. “So if he has company, if he wants to show off art, he can do whatever he wants to do.”

Having a place to live that’s completely open with no walls is something Sanders says he’s long dreamed of.

“Walls and hallways and doorways all slow me down,” he says. “They’re just not necessary for me.”

What he plans on using the moveable walls for most is to hang art he’ll make by rolling his wheelchair through paint. And, he adds, he might get some of the people to help him make a few paintings.

“What I thought about first was getting kids in chairs, working with them to do art and counseling them,” Sanders says.

The biggest hurdle is funding. Wiklinski says he and his firm are turning to crowdfunding for the seed money. He’s also looking into grants from the state and federal governments. But what would really advance the project are corporate sponsorships.

“We don’t know exactly where our funding will come from, but we have several sources that are interested,” he says. “We would really like to bring socially aware corporate sponsors to the table. There are a lot of opportunities there for them.”

Because Red House has never done a project like this – nor has anyone in the Mahoning Valley – Wiklinski says he isn’t sure of the cost of the project, but estimates between $100,000 and $125,000.

Ramsey added that since these are “new waters” for the city design review board, some aspects of the house may be changed and, because of that, the square footage may change, but Wiklinski says it should be around 1,500 square feet.

A vacant house sits at the back of one of the three lots used for the project. The house will be torn down, but a mural on one of the walls will be saved. To add to the singularity of the project, Red House plans to build the world’s largest speed square – a triangular metal tool carpenters use to measure and mark lumber – to shore up the wall.

The mural, often called “Blind Faith,” is another important aspect for Wiklinski and Sanders.

“It really sells the whole story of Jeff’s life, of his trait to reach out to others and tell them, ‘You can do it,’ ” Wiklinski says. “It tells the story of Warren rebuilding itself. It tells the story of us taking an extreme risk to even get this project this far.”

Pictured: The cargo container house will be built for Jeff Sanders, a counselor at First Step Recovery in Warren.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.