Television home improvement guru Bob Vila was in town last week to shoot several episodes about an affordable hurricane-ready house being fashioned from heavy gauge steel shipping containers better known for cradling ocean-going cargo.
Late Thursday morning, as dozens of people watched, a crane hoisted the shipping containers, eased them through clipped branches of oaks and set them precisely on steel plates atop a concrete block with reinforced steel foundation. By 8 a.m. the next day, the four-bedroom, two-bath, one-car garage had taken shape and workers were covering its wooden roof trusses with sheets of plywood.
The house at 874 15th Ave. S, in the Bartlett Park neighborhood of Midtown, is expected to be complete by early August. Its construction is being documented by Vila and will be shown on his nationally syndicated show in September. The show airs on WFTS, the local ABC affiliate, at 6:30 a.m. Saturdays.
Wearing a blue plaid shirt and sitting on a stack of trusses, Vila spoke passionately about the unusual project.
"It's a story about recycling and adapting steel shipping containers into affordable residences. When they're done, they will be incredibly strong," he said. "We just think it's a marvelous story."
The country's ports are stockpiled with containers, "because we don't export anything anymore," said Vila, a graduate of the University of Florida.
It's cheaper for overseas shippers to dump the containers in the United States rather than return them to their place of origin, Vila said.
"It's the same as littering on a global scale," he said. He credited American ingenuity for reusing the discarded containers as sturdy frameworks for homes.
"I see it as a trend as long as we have this problem of abandoned shipping containers in this country," said Vila, who grew up in Miami.
David Cross of Tampa Armature Works, which provided the containers for the Bartlett Park house, said the concept has been around in some fashion for about 50 years. Properly called intermodal steel building units, the containers have been used by the military for a variety of purposes, including offices, he said. During the Vietnam War, they were used as secure sleeping quarters, he said.
Using the steel containers for houses, however, "is still in its infancy," Cross said.
The Bartlett Park residence is the third such home with which his company has been involved, Cross said. While a similar affordable home has been built in North Charleston, S.C., a million-dollar version is rising in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Four shipping containers - two 20 feet long and two 40 feet long and with widths of 8 feet and rising 9 feet, 6 inches - form the framework of the St. Petersburg house. The containers arrived on the site with openings for doors and windows. Cross described the units as "radically enhanced'' and doesn't want anyone to get the wrong impression about the end result of the project.
"This home," he said, "is no more built from containers than a house is built from trees."
In fact, the house will be indistinguishable from any other new home in the area. With 1,800 square feet of living space, it has been designed to comply with the Bartlett Park neighborhood plan and will look like another new home just a block away, at Highland Street and Newton Avenue S. It will, however, be larger, and its garage will face the alley rather than the street.
The project is a collaboration of St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services Inc., Tampa Armature Works and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Primary funding for the project has come from Home Depot and its foundation, NeighborWorks America, and the city of St. Petersburg.
"We expect to sell the house to first-time home buyers with total household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income," said Askia Muhammad Aquil, executive director of St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, whose office is a block from the project. He said the plan is to build a similar three-bedroom, two-bath, one-car garage next door this summer.
The new homes will offer important advantages, he said.
"We see that this construction approach and the materials that we are using will result in a house that is termite resistant, hurricane resistant because of the steel walls and the second ceiling from the steel container, the impact resistant windows and doors and the space-age spray-on insulation. Combined, all of these elements will result in an energy efficient, robust and affordable to operate and maintain home," he said.
The houses are being constructed to meet the toughest building codes in the country, said Ray Price, the project's manager and director of housing development for the housing service.
Thursday morning, Deputy Mayor Mike Dove was on site. "We're anxious to see what it looks like,'' Dove said.
Phil LeClerc, a real estate broker, waited patiently for the delayed flatbed trucks with the containers to arrive.
"I'm excited," he said.
So were Joel McNair, a real estate developer, and his son, Elliott, who had driven from Sarasota.
The Bob Vila show will showcase the project as well as the Bartlett Park neighborhood. Vila praised the community, mentioning particularly its oak trees and ongoing revitalization.
Bartlett Park runs from 11th to 22nd avenues S and Fourth Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.