Shipping Containers Hold Niche for Local Companies

COLUMBIANA, Ohio – It wasn’t that long ago that the small motor control building now part of Witmer’s Feed & Grain Inc. in Columbiana was packed with all sorts of products unrelated to the grain industry.

Even more remarkable, the building was likely making its way across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, probably from a port in Asia.

That’s because the control room was once a bland-looking steel shipping container that measures 20 feet long and eight feet wide in the hold of a cargo ship with hundreds of other containers just like it. Today, this container has a new lease on life, part of an imaginative global trend that is transforming these simple shipping units into many practical uses, some of them architectural marvels.

“We’ve done several of these over the past four or five years,” says Shane Wonner, general manager at B&J Electric in Poland.

B&J has reconditioned two shipping containers – the 20-footer and a larger 40-foot long container – into motor control and operational annexes for Witmer’s. The smaller of the two was recently completed while the larger one was installed a couple of years ago. Today it houses a control and operations unit for the company’s receiving bay.

“We have them shipped in and then we can do just about everything in-house” at B&J’s offices in Poland, Wonner says.

B&J Electric has found niche in refitting these containers with the proper wiring, controls, electric arrays and insulation. Once finished, lighting, ventilation and HVAC service is added and the unit is painted. In Witmer’s case, the paint on both units matched perfectly and blended with the structure there.

“It’s nice because we can work out of our own facility,” he says. The company has built these motor control units for clients in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and South Carolina, he says.

Steel shipping containers were once the ugly, rusting eyesores that turned America’s ports into nasty parking lots. Now, they offer practical and affordable solutions to builders and architects worldwide who see the value of recycling them into houses, storefronts, storage units, swimming pools and spas.

Even some entertainment and recreational districts today embrace a “container chic” concept. One of South Korea’s most fashionable shopping malls in Seoul, for example, was designed and constructed almost entirely out of shipping containers. The same “cargotecture” approach was used to finish a recent expansion of the National Theater Company of Korea.

In New Zealand, an enterprising business has emerged by repurposing shipping containers into backyard swimming pools and hot tubs while a developer in Columbus is building “cargominium” apartments created from these containers. Containers are also used as the base architecture for a new artists’ colony in Akron still in the design and planning stages.

A 40-foot container in good shape – what Wonner calls a “used-new” unit – could run between $5,000 and $5,500. B&J purchases the containers from distributors in Cleveland and Pennsylvania that have them shipped directly to B&J’s site. “We can test everything here in our shop and then ship it out to the site,” he says.

There are also more practical uses for recycled cargo containers that require minimal modification.

“We use them to store equipment and other things that need locked up,” says Ben Mihokovich, a project assistant at American Preservation Builders, Cleveland. The company is remodeling the International Towers building in downtown Youngstown and uses four 40-foot shipping containers for storage. They sit at the corner of the building’s parking lot.

The company has used containers for on-site job storage for at least four years. “There are a number of different safety locks you can place on them, and some have safety cameras built into them,” Mihokovich says.

Once, the company would have to find space in a basement for storage and constantly move equipment in and out, he says. Making use of 40-foot deep shipping containers eliminates the scramble for more space.

“They have a flatbed truck come in and simply drop them off,” he says. “When we’re done with them, they’ll just pick them up.”

The trend has others thinking that repurposed cargo containers could serve as an inexpensive way to promote economic development and entrepreneurship in Youngstown.

Earlier this month, community partners announced a proposal to build a business incubator at the intersection of Hillman Street and West Warren Avenue on the South Side. The premise is to place two reconditioned shipping containers on each of the four corners at the intersection with a twofold goal: to help entrepreneurs that might have difficulty with obtaining a storefront and to help clean up this section of town.

“It’s big out west,” says Ed Macabobby Jr., owner of Steel Valley Container Structures in North Lima and one who is interested in participating in the project. “People have used them for cabins when they’re hunting,” he says, “and some have been converted into homeless shelters.”

City officials hope the Youngstown project comes in under $100,000.

Macabobby‘s other company performs home remodeling and metal fabrication, so reconditioning shipping containers seemed a perfect fit. “We’ve got two of them now in the shop,” he says. “We’re making a model for people to see.”

Macabobby says containers hold up surprisingly well as a structure. “Durability-wise, they’re rated higher than a trailer for wind,” he says. Properly anchored, containers can withstand winds of up to 175 miles per hour while the steel is usually a special grade that can withstand corrosion.

“We use the top grades to do the homes,” he says.

Shipping container houses and offices are more popular than ever, and a visit to the online auction site eBay shows several up for sale. A custom 40-foot shipping container home office – decked out in blue with two horizontal windows and a doorway cut out in the front – is on sale starting at $15,000.

Inside, the ceilings are lined with recessed lighting, the floor is covered with Pergo laminate, the interior is sided with drywall, and the office includes a kitchenette large enough for a full-size refrigerator. A bathroom was installed in place of a closet.

Another 20-foot transportable shipping container home is on sale for $55,000 while a 40-foot long container home with cedar siding and oak flooring is on the market for $67,000.

“There are millions of designs,” Macabobby says. “There are 2,000-square-foot houses that sell for about $240,000 – all of them made out of recycled containers.”

Pictured: Shane Wonner stands inside a motor-control room at Witmer’s Feed & Grain that was once a shipping container.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.