Shipping containers were pitched as the Next Big T...

Shipping containers were pitched as the Next Big Thing in Detroit housing — but they couldn’t get off the ground

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A few years ago, shipping container architecture was trending, like tiny homes, but even more minimal. People seized on the novel designs and the idea that using discarded steel cargo boxes for housing could be a more sustainable and affordable building technique.

Detroit’s very own Three Squared Inc. was one of the companies that encapsulated the hopes for shipping container architecture. They frequently attracted attention and glowing profiles based on plans to build two apartment complexes in the neighborhoods of Corktown (Kaline Squared) and Woodbridge (Rosa Parks Squared). Trumbull Squared, their model building in North Corktown, was completed in 2015 with nine attractive units made out of shipping containers. It was a testament to their method’s viability, and requests came in to buy the apartments in the unbuilt developments.

Both projects, totaling about 40 units, would be finished by the end of 2018, CEO and founder Leslie Horn said in the summer of 2017. At that point, planning had already been in the works for at least five years.

But today, while container buildings are still being built, fascination with the cute boxy homes has cooled and the common take is more skeptical — critics have questioned whether it’s truly an effective solution for long-running problems in housing development, from both cost and design perspectives. And in Detroit, the two Three Squared Inc. project sites remain empty, except a “for sale” sign on the property at Rosa Parks Boulevard and Warren Avenue.

shipping container development rendering in detroit
Trumbull Squared model units, completed 2015. Courtesy Three Squared Inc.

“We believe in the sustainability of [shipping container construction], but yes, it’s not for everybody,” Horn told Detour. “There was false hype, and we might have added into it early on.”

So what happened to the dream of cargo container apartment buildings in Detroit? Well, it’s not dead, but it has gone through some major revisions, Horn said.

“We thought we were developers, because we had made some great investment in land and thought we would be able to push through as a development company,” she said. “What we learned very quickly is as a new development company, is it’s very challenging if you don’t have the history of development [needed to get] funding.”

Three Squared struggled to attract partners or qualify for financing needed to get the projects off the ground. About one-and-a-half years ago, the leadership team decided on a major shift in direction, giving up development to focus on offering design, fabrication and project management services to other developers who want to build with shipping containers.

The transition has brought them more work (around Michigan and in a few other states), with eight completed projects and 13 in the pipeline. For now, the two planned container condo complexes in Detroit aren’t on that list. After failing to finance the projects, Three Squared went searching for joint venture partners with more experience on the development side.

Late last year, they finalized an agreement with metro Detroit developers Andrew Housey and Brad Byarski to partner on the Kaline Squared property at Rosa Parks, a block north of Michigan Avenue in Corktown. However, they are waiting until more of Ford’s development plans in the neighborhood come to fruition to decide whether it still makes sense to build the original project, and they may ultimately nix the containers or sell the land.

The firm did not find a partner for their Woodbridge property and put it on the market earlier this year. Listed at $499,000, it’s gotten interest from a few potential buyers, said broker Jan Dijkers. A buyer would have the option to partner on the original Rosa Parks Squared plans, but could also use the lot for something else.

Three Squared’s quiet shelving of the projects feels like an abrupt reversal considering the amount of confidence they showed publicly less than two years ago. Of course, they’re far from the first Detroit developer to promise shiny new buildings that never materialize, or even the first shipping container developer. Collision Works, a boutique shipping container hotel in Eastern Market, was announced with fanfare in 2012; it hasn’t been built yet. (Founder Shel Kimendidn’t immediately return a request for comment.)

And Detroit, particularly Detroit media, can be so hungry for new development projects — and novelty — that we shower attention on plans before they’re solid, and whether or not they’re viable. In more extreme examples, there’s these faux-European narrow cobblestone streets in Palmer Park, or the sprawling work-live space for artists with an indoor lake in a Highland Park school.

While Three Squared’s two major developments stalled, the firm has had a hand in a range of other building projects, like the Detroit Shipping Co. food hall, a restaurant in Muskegon, public plazas in California and Royal Oak and the “Cargominium” affordable housing complex in Columbus Ohio (not yet completed).

Horn said they are also working with a local developer on plans to build multifamily housing — smaller buildings, with three units apiece — on about 10 lots in the Islandview neighborhood. The project is in early stages, and has yet to secure funding and city approval.

She still evangelizes about using cargo containers in specific situations. They make for really unique homes, she said, and sell quickly. They are stronger than other construction materials and more energy efficient. While they don’t make small projects much cheaper, Horn said projects can see cost savings up to 15 percent once they reach a certain scale. Horn’s current goal for Three Squared is to work up to making 175 units a year for various projects, enough that they’ll start to collect on the cost savings she hopes will make container construction more appealing to developers.

“Change is hard. Getting contractors to do things differently and getting developers to do things differently… it’s a challenge,” she said. 

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl