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Transforming Shipping Containers into an
Industrial Cottage Home

Susan Fredman

Susan Fredman
CEO, Susan Fredman
Design Group
Founder, Designs for Dignity

Experimentation with new materials has always been at the core of renowned Chicago interior designer Susan Fredman’s work. Susan is the award-winning CEO of Susan Fredman Design Group and founder of Designs for Dignity, a non-profit collective dedicated to transforming environments and the lives of those who inhabit them. An innovative and creative leader, Susan is pushing the design envelope with her newest venture, container homes. Made from recycled shipping containers, these ecologically sound structures are shifting traditional thinking about the concept of home. Susan spoke with TMG about working with this unlikely component and thinking outside, and inside, the box.

Susan, this is a fascinating concept. What is a container home?

At its most basic level, a container home is a home made of one or more shipping containers. But, that’s not what it means for us. Our container homes are custom, hybrid container cottages. By integrating traditional stick build we’re creating a new vernacular, a unique combination of the industrial and the cottage.

What was your inspiration for this idea?

As an interior designer, I’ve had my eye on this trend for a while. People around the world are repurposing shipping containers and using them as architecture. In Europe and on the West Coast, designers have been stacking the containers for commercial purposes. Inspired by the landscape around my property in Michigan, I started imagining what we might build there with containers that would be harmonious within the setting. I knew we could do it!

My team began with three key ideas. Topmost was the green factor. It’s estimated that there are 300 million containers languishing in ports around the world or worse, at the bottom of the ocean. If they’re not used, they become landfill, and that’s a problem.

Second, containers are a very economical solution. We found that people were experimenting with them, but no one was documenting the process. So, we started sporadically and evolved our own plan.

Speed of construction was the third important driver. Containers require a simpler foundation than standard construction.

We’ve been immersed in a process of discovery and redefining the concept of home. As we explore forms and ideas, a hybrid has emerged that speaks to people who are looking for something new. It’s an aesthetic that is part urban, part industrial, and still intimate and cozy. My home has been our testing ground and reflects much of our new thinking and experimentation. When areas of the container were left freestanding, they revealed themselves in a variety of unexpected ways. We used the container on a wall behind shelving and in the kitchen as cladding of the range hood. The original yellow numbers, or tagging, were retained on the exterior of the containers and are visible from several vantage points throughout the house. Each window offers a different view and brings the outside to the interior.

The containers offer an opportunity to use traditional materials in unusual ways and create interest through unconventional treatments. For example, the floor finishes are a combination of concrete and resin that offer greater warmth than these materials provide individually.

The transformation from ubiquitous steel box to dream home is stunning. What is your process?

Our process continues to evolve. Container sizes are specific and very geometric. Typically, they’re 8-feet wide, by 40-feet long, by 9.5-feet high. We’re learning to work with these parameters in interesting ways. For my home in Michigan, we took three 40-foot long containers and created a public space. The same combination was used to create a private space. Gables and traditional materials connect the two areas and were extended back into the public space to create light and additional square footage. Trees on the property were harvested for use as lumber for this stick build portion. They will be used in other ways too, such as flooring throughout the home.

The efficiencies that result from the container home construction process are a beautiful thing. The house floats about three feet off the ground and sits on foundation walls anchored with steel beams. These walls are eight-foot long hollow concrete spines. All the services are housed within these vaults and move up into the container. The containers are craned in and sit on top of the steel beams that have been laid perpendicular to the vaults. So many people are coming over to watch the construction and to ask questions that we could sell tickets!

Construction is still ongoing, although the finish date is in sight. We have a spec home under construction too. It features a simpler design and has about the same square footage. Two others have been designed; they’re all located in Michigan. You can see the elevations online at www.stonesthrowbuilders.com.

Describe the unique design challenges of the container home. What lessons have you learned along the way?

My normal design process is very kinetic. The idea grows as I go. Because steel doesn’t align well with that methodology, I’ve had to adapt. In the spec house, we’re doing our best to decide everything in advance so the ironworkers are onsite as few times as possible. We are predetermining the cuts they’ll have to make and where everything is going to be laid out. The ironworkers’ time has been reduced from ten days to three days. We’d like to lower that to less than three days. As we continue to work with green components and understand the technology involved and the medium, our goal is to make the process more cost effective and time efficient.

How do you ensure that a container’s former function doesn’t interfere with its becoming a home (i.e. exposure to pesticides or other contaminates)?

At this point, we’re not using containers that may have this issue. Our containers haven’t been all over the world multiple times; they are one-trip containers. As we complete more homes, we will decide whether or not to take on this particular challenge.

How does the construction expense compare to a traditional stick built home?

We think it will become more and more cost effective as we move through the learning curve. Our spec house will be less expensive than a completely stick built home.

Imagine that you could select any space to transform. What would you pick and what would it become?

I couldn’t pick just one. Transforming spaces that really transform other people’s lives is my absolute favorite work. The impact we’ve had through Designs for Dignity is far-reaching. We’ve created safe, comfortable, and nurturing environments for non-profits and community programs throughout the Midwest. These organizations lack the resources to develop inspiring interiors that can support the wellness of the human spirit. Our work breathes new life into their surroundings and sends a clear message of hope to the people they serve that they do, in fact, matter.


Susan's House--Early Stages

Left: A container is lowered into position on its foundation at Susan’s home in Michigan.
Right, top and bottom: Three 40-foot containers at Susan’s home create public and private spaces. Traditional stick build construction connects the two areas.

Yellow Tagging and Foundation

Left: Original yellow tagging on the exterior of the container is left in place as the transformation to industrial cottage becomes visible.
Right: Containers sit about three feet off the ground on eight-foot long hollow concrete vaults.

Lumber, Porch, Iron Worker

Left: Trees on Susan’s property were harvested for lumber for the stick build connecting the public and private spaces, and for multiple uses within the interior of the home.
Center: The transformation from container to screened-in porch begins.
Right: As her process evolves, Susan has successfully reduced ironworkers’ time from ten days to three days.


Visit Susan Fredman online at www.susanfredman.comLearn more about Designs for Dignity at www.designsfordignity.orgView the elevations for Susan’s Michigan container homes at www.stonesthrowbuilders.com.