Couple’s Royal Oak home built from shipping containers

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Dark red steel stretches two stories high inside Aaron and Grace Schnepp’s Royal Oak living room with the company name “Florens” in the upper left corner on one wall and “Caution 9’6” High” below it.

The words tell the story of materials that once lived another life – as 40-foot long shipping containers, hauling cargo back and forth across the ocean.

Now these steel boxes serve another purpose: as the building blocks for the Schnepps’ new home.

Seven steel containers were welded together – six horizontally and one vertically – to create one entirely unique house off Rochester Road just south of 13 Mile. It’s one of the first single family homes made primarily from shipping containers in Metro Detroit, and possibly Michigan.

“I have always wanted a shipping container home but never really thought I would own one,” says Aaron Schnepp, a car stylist who designs concept cars for Chrysler.

Built by contractor Drake Boroja and his team at Washington Township-based ModEco Development, the 2,350- square-foot three-bedroom, 21/2 bath house is the culmination of roughly two years of hard work to design the house, find the right subcontractors, build it and then find the right buyer.

Curious onlookers, meanwhile, have stopped by nearly every day to ask questions. Even now, they sometimes peek in the windows, say Aaron and Grace.

“When we were building this thing, literally every five minutes there were people coming up, asking questions,” says Boroja, who now has several other shipping container projects in the works, including a house in Ferndale. “It was crazy. It was hard to get work done. So we knew that people liked it. The question was would they buy it.”

Though their unique house may not appeal to everyone – Aaron and Grace say some online commenters have been harsh – they love the novelty of their new home.

“I love the juxtaposition between the homey with the raw metal. They vibe off each other so well,” says Aaron.

Aaron and Grace met through friends and married more than a year ago in Korea. For seven years, they lived in an industrial-style loft in Royal Oak. Finally ready to buy a home and start a family, the couple again wanted an industrial style house, but finding one was hard.

Driving by the shipping container house nearly every day on his way to the gym, Aaron loved it, but was certain it was out of the couple’s price range. So he was surprised when it was listed in November and it wasn’t. Within hours, he made an offer, even though Grace, a product specialist for Toyota who works at auto shows across the world, was out of town.

“He was sending me pictures, texting me and calling me,” says Grace. “I never saw it in person. Obviously I was a little nervous.”

But now they’re both sold.

“We wanted something industrial, but we wanted a house,” says Aaron. “And we wanted something we could grow into... This solved that because it’s got the loft aesthetic with a home. It’s cozy. For us it couldn’t be any better.”

The house, which has a surprisingly open concept, flows from the front foyer to the living room, kitchen and dining area. It is a mix of materials – steel, bamboo floors, and exposed duct work.

Aaron loves the juxtaposition of materials, something he and Grace, who moved in in mid-January, plan to continue to play up in their decor. Much of their furniture is from Restoration Hardware.

Boroja first discovered shipping container housing six years ago. He contemplated building a shipping container house for his own family, but couldn’t find a contractor. “They said no. You’re crazy,” says Boroja.

Instead he and his partners at ModEco decided to build a house to sell. The project had its share of hiccups. Picking up old shipping containers at the Detroit riverfront, they discovered they could only get one container at a time, even though they rented a crane for a day to stack them.

“We had to find a tow truck company that had space that they would then pick up the containers over time,” says Boroja. “And when they had them all, then we could schedule the crane.”

The house originally was designed to be wider, but it had to be modified because “we couldn’t get the crane around. That was a huge issue,” says Boroja.

But now that it is finished, it’s built to last, says Boroja. He says the appeal of shipping container housing is that it is cheaper to build, cheaper to maintain, and energy-efficient. The shipping containers are coated with a special ceramic coating so they don’t sweat.

“We learned a lot from this house,” says Boroja. “It’s built strong, it’s not going anywhere. When the apocalypse hits, it’s going to be the last thing standing.”

Aaron and Grace, meanwhile, continue to put their touch on their new house. They plan to paint several rooms, replace the vinyl siding outside with cedar and do landscaping. “We have so much more work to do,” says Grace.

The couple, who paid $430,000 for the house, which they say is less than what similar size houses are selling for in Royal Oak, acknowledge some may question their decision, but they don’t.

“When you drive around, you can’t find a house like this,” says Aaron.

Grace agrees: “This was the perfect house for us.”

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Trumbull Squared model unit waits for final inspections

Trumbull Squared, a model unit for a series of shipping container condominium developments in Detroit, is finally opening its doors for appointment-only showings, but is hoping to officially open to the public with regular hours later this year. Kelly Fowler, vice president of Three Squared, the company building the developments, says officials are waiting on final inspections before the model unit just north of I-75 can officially. The 2,400-square-foot unit has two units inside – a two-floor 1,400-square-foot unit that has a more traditional feel and a 700-square foot unit that has an industrial touch. “We’re trying to show all the options,” says Fowler. Walking up the stairs, visitors can feel the exposed steel of containers that once held cargo. “There are special things we’ve left so people can see ‘Here’s one container, here’s another.’” They want to touch it, feel it,” Fowler says. Still, there’s definitely been a learning curve with the projects, especially with building officials and city codes. “We are writing new code,” says Fowler, referring to building codes and fire safety ratings. The second phase of the project is an eight-unit development at Kaline and Rosa Parks in Corktown.

– Maureen Feighan