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Beauty of the US’ biggest shipping container office building

In 2008, architect Joe Haskett was hired to design an office building on an abandoned lot in Providence, RI. Then the economy crashed and the owner needed something more affordable. Haskett began investigating pre-fab and modular alternatives and a year later, Box Office was born: a 12 unit office building built from 32 recycled shipping containers.

To guarantee financing and permitting for the first permanent commercial building in the country built from containers, Haskett involved bankers and city officials from the beginning.

“The first time I went down to meet the fire officials, I was describing what I wanted to do, and after my explanation, because I knew it was sensitive, our biggest hurdle was budget and also how were we going to get people to understand this and approve it. So I went in and described it to him and he said, ‘Okay so let me just get this straight, so you want to take containers and slide them in like coffins’, and I said, ‘No, no, we’re not starting off on the right foot here.’”

Thanks to the many planning meetings, design charettes and “pow-wows”, Box Office was built entirely code-compliant without requiring a single variance.

While the building cost less than the more conventional “green” building Haskett had originally designed, it’s not as cheap as many people assume. “A lot of the times people when they think, ‘oh, hey we want to do it out of containers’ and they think that means dirt cheap and a lot of the times that is not the case. So a lot of the times people think, ‘Oh, if my office building was 150 dollars per square foot well if I use containers it will be 50’. And that’s not the case. This ended up coming in, with site, I think it was 120 dollars per square foot. The other thing you’ve got to put in on top of this, this is one of the highest performing buildings in Rhode Island in terms of energy.”

Thanks to good insulation,  efficient windows and doors and tight air sealing, Box Office uses just 22 KBTU/sf/year, about 25% of a typical Rhode Island commercial space. The building is 100% occupied, and it’s almost an incubator for alternative building. “It’s been kind of a self-selecting community of people here,” explains tenant Robert Williams who works for the sustainable developer Truthbox (the same people behind Box Office), “so there’s a handful of architects, designers and builders who are all interested in green construction to some extent or another.”

Photo credits: Nat Rea (construction, evening shots w/o people), Stephanie Ewens (evening shots with people), Peter Gil Case (additional).