Business & Real Estate

Shipping containers go from hobo to hip

Shipping containers have gone from hobo to hip in cities such as London and San Francisco in recent years. Today, Sacramento is set to take its place among urban areas that have embraced the 40-foot steel boxes – used to transport goods by ship, truck and train – as restaurants, shops and bus stops.

In an alley behind a century-old house at 2009 N St. in midtown, designer Marvin Maldonado is assembling seven cargo containers into what will be a new restaurant and bar called Federalist.

Ten blocks away on K Street, Der Biergarten, an outdoor beer garden that opened last winter, used two shipping containers to house its bar and restrooms. But upset neighbors and city planners compelled its owners to disguise the boxes with siding.

At Federalist, the containers will be painted navy blue but otherwise maintain their industrial appearance. The fact that city planners let the containers keep their character is a sign that Sacramento is maturing in its acceptance of cutting-edge design, Maldonado said. The project’s back-alley location, away from main thoroughfares, was also a factor, he said.

“Modern architecture can be a tough nut to crack in Sacramento,” said Maldonado, whose inFORM firm has designed a number of prominent restaurant projects in the Sacramento region.

Sacramento architect Jason A. Silva said the metal boxes, which arrive at U.S. ports by the millions and are often hard to get rid of, have been popular with designers for decades but controversial among the public and politicians.

They’re cheap, sturdy and have, in some people’s eyes, a cool corrugated look, Silva said. It’s become practically a rite of passage in the past 30 years for architecture students to tinker with containers for school projects, he said.

Others have seen the containers as a threat. Agricultural communities, for instance, feared that allowing farmers to shelter migrant workers in shipping containers would lead to a proliferation of ugly and substandard housing, he said. Elected officials passed ordinances forbidding corrugated metal as a siding material or banning the containers outright.

“Only recently have we seen a swing,” Silva said. “It’s been challenging but there’s been a (change in perception of shipping containers) as being something solid, as being something valid. It’s economical. It’s sustainable. It’s a reuse of material. They’re also extremely strong. They’re designed to be stacked eight high and hold 50,000 pounds.”

The metal boxes also have serious hindrances as dwellings or commercial structures, he said. Most notably, they tend to heat up quickly in hot environments like the Central Valley.

“Unless you put a bunch together and open them up, the amount of insulation you have to put in means you lose a lot of interior space,” the architect said. A container that’s 8 feet wide can be reduced to a usable space of 6 or 7 feet after adding protection against the elements.

Yet the number of shipping container-based projects have been increasing steadily in Europe, the United States and around the world, he noted.

In the Netherlands, architects fashioned shipping containers into a bus stop to shelter waiting commuters. In London, a Mexican restaurant is made from stacked containers.

The best-known project in California is called Proxy, a collection of shops and kiosks in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. The temporary development occupies two blocks left vacant by the demolition of the elevated Central Freeway, damaged in 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake.

Proxy features a three-story men’s clothing store built of shipping containers, along with a beer garden, a juice bar and other establishments. It’s become a popular outdoor gathering spot for San Franciscans, with lights strung across the formerly empty lots.

“Envisioned with a lifespan of two to three years, Proxy is an investigation into the potentials of impermanence,” reads the website of architecture firm Envelope A+D, which planned Proxy.

Partly inspired by Proxy, Maldonado set out to create a similar space in Sacramento in the backyard of the federalist-style Victorian home where he lives with his wife, Bridgette, also a designer, and their two young children. They lease the 1907 house and backyard from local attorney Mark La Rocque. It’s next door to one of Sacramento’s most popular restaurant corridors along Capitol Avenue, behind the Waterboy restaurant and Rubicon Brewing.

Maldonado ordered his containers from CubeDepot, a Santa Barbara firm that deals in what are known in the shipping trade as “high cubes.” The company partnered with the developers and made most of the necessary modifications, including cutting out walls and doors.

They were delivered to the site this summer, placed with forklifts, and are now being readied for an opening in August. On Tuesday, workers continued the process of fitting the containers together, squaring the imperfect areas where they join and installing wiring, plumbing and fire-proofing to meet code.

Federalist will concentrate on wine and beer from Northern California, especially the Sacramento region, and will bake pizzas in a wood-fired oven. It will also have a bocce court.

The interior design will take its cues from the historic home in front, Maldonado said. The restaurant has a founders’ club, whose members pay $250 to drink 25-cent beers served in stainless-steel tankards modeled after 18th century pewter mugs.

The exterior will retain the look of the shipping containers, except for covering the mismatched shades of red with a uniform blue paint job. A rooftop garden with 4 inches of soil will help deflect heat and possibly supply herbs for the kitchen, Maldonado said. The kitchen and bar area will have swamp coolers. Ceiling fans will rotate above the dining area, which will have one long side open to the outdoors.

The shipping containers ranged in price from about $1,800 to $3,700, Maldonado said. One held garlic by the smell of it and came from China, he said. Another had Arabic markings and tire stickers plastered on the walls.

The heavy steel doors of a shipping container will be the restaurant’s front doors. Its floors will be the containers’ inch-thick plywood. Using containers has lowered costs dramatically and saved months of construction time, Maldonado said.

“It’s a modern look and a simple expression of materials,” he said. “When we’re all done, we’ll have a 2,200-square-foot restaurant, with ground-up design and construction, built for $150 a square foot.”

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