A chronic trade imbalance — the United States imports far more goods than it exports — has resulted in a stylish new house that's the first of its kind in Lexington.
The house that Todd Hoffman and Gae Granville-Hoffman built off Old Versailles Road is made out of three steel shipping containers — the large steel boxes used to move manufactured goods across the oceans on large ships.
When the ships reach a port, the containers are loaded onto trains or trucks for delivery. Because more stuff comes into the country than leaves, and because it's often not economical to ship empties back, there's a surplus of containers in the United States.
Some are just stacked and left to rust; some are cut up and recycled. It has been estimated there are 17 million shipping containers in the world, many in places where they're not needed.
Enter Granville-Hoffman, an artist and accountant, who read a magazine article several years ago about shipping containers being used for student housing in England.
"I thought this was just the coolest thing I'd ever seen," she said.
And, because using recycled containers is more environmentally friendly than cutting down trees to build houses out of lumber, it's green.
She mentioned the idea to her friend, architect Tom Cheek, who "kind of got caught up in it," Granville-Hoffman said.
Cheek drew up plans for the house, and they all went to city hall to apply for a building permit.
Dewey Crowe, the city's building inspection director, said his department's only previous experience with shipping containers was a detached garage built out of them a few years ago. This was the first occupied structure.
"Because it's a non- standard building material, they both had to have a design professional basically say it meets the requirements of a more standard building material," Crowe said.
In this case, Cheek was that professional. The approval process was OK, he said, but it probably will be smoother the next time a container house is built.
The resulting 960-square-foot house is contemporary, open and airy. Granville-Hoffman describes it as "mid-century modern."
Todd Hoffman, who owns a commercial construction and construction- management company, did most of the work. Gae was responsible for the interior, with ideas, color suggestions and encouragement from Deborah Drury, a friend who is an interior designer. Granville-Hoffman did paintings for the walls, and she painted window treatments for several round windows.
The house has two bedrooms and 11/2 baths. The round windows reflect the containers' seagoing purpose, and sliding glass doors face south and provide plenty of light to a living area.
Hoffman had to experiment with the best way to do several tasks, including cutting holes for the windows.
The house is welded to a concrete-and-steel foundation. A roof covers the three containers and ties them together. A deck around most of three sides of the house expands the living space.
Some of the interior furnishings were bought from the Ikea store in West Chester, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. There also is a recycled bathroom cabinet from Cowgirl Attic on Delaware Avenue, and a cast-iron tub that Cheek found. The floor in one of the bathrooms is recycled red oak horse farm plank fencing from Salvage Nation on Newtown Pike.
Hoffman put up metal studs inside and sprayed insulation before hanging drywall. The ceiling has rolls of insulation. Two months ago, with the air conditioner running and plumbers and other workers coming in and out of the house, the electric bill was $35. Last month, it was $21.
The couple bought the containers from Brian Stigers Truck & Trailer Sales in Frankfort. They cost $2,000 each, delivered. A crane lifted them over a bur oak tree and set them on the foundation.
Each container is eight feet wide and 40 feet long. Gae and Todd chose larger containers, called "big boxes," because they are 91/2 feet high. The doors on the ends were welded shut, but the hinge and locking hardware were left attached. One of the containers has a metal plate certifying that it can hold 67,000 pounds.
The couple don't know much about the history of the containers. From the graphics painted on them, one apparently belonged to the Maersk Line and another to Capital Line, both shipping companies. A third was marked Transocean, apparently for the large offshore drilling company. They were green, silver and red. Keenan Granville, their son, painted them all red.
"He's an auto body man, so he treated it just like a car," Granville-Hoffman said.
Todd Hoffman estimated that completing the house cost $100,000. A sizable portion of that was for a septic tank, he said. It cost more than expected because the house sits on solid rock, and a lot of blasting was required.
Gae and Todd spent only one night in the house; they recently rented it to a young couple for $1,150 a month, furnished, utilities included.
With one container house under their belt, the couple are thinking of another, or more. They think the houses would be perfect for urban infill.
"If you have one of those little row houses that are perhaps falling down, you could slide in two containers 16 feet wide and 40 feet long," Granville-Hoffman said.
Cheek said he would like to build a cluster of container houses, including larger structures with second or third floors made by stacking containers on top of each other.
The Internet has plenty of information on container structures, including some with containers around the outside and more conventional construction in the middle, and hurricane-proof houses for Florida and other Gulf states.
After years of thinking and dreaming about building a container house, Granville-Hoffman doesn't hide her excitement when showing off the finished product.
"It's been a real exciting project, and a lot of fun," she said. "For me, it was like seeing this vision come true."