Thinking Outside the Box

Written by Claire Suttles

Shipping containers are in demand around the world, but getting your hands on one is not always straightforward. CubeDepot has pioneered a hassle-free solution for both buyers and suppliers, so that individuals can easily acquire them, and suppliers can easily unload them.
Every year, around 5 percent of the world’s 45 million shipping containers are retired to the North American market and made available for sale. But, how do individuals and mom and pop companies connect with the multinationals that are selling these containers? CubeDepot Founder Al Harris realized that he had the answer. “I thought about the inefficiencies in the industry and felt I could create a high tech solution for a low tech industry,” he remembers.

He created what is essentially a search engine for shipping containers, effectively connecting buyers and sellers who would otherwise not be in a position to do business together. “We speed up the process for both sides. [We] give consumers a place to go where they can find this equipment and we give suppliers a vehicle to quickly move that equipment.” In short, CubeDepot removes “some of the hurdles of a billion dollar company doing business with a local trucker.”

CubeDepot primarily deals with rentals and sales, but it also boasts a Custom Project division, which takes advantage of the massive potential that shipping containers have as a non-traditional building material. This arm of the business helps customers transform a used shipping crate into a fully equipped building, and it is growing at a remarkable pace. “When I first got involved in 2000, modifications represented about two to three percent of our business,” Mr. Harris recalls. “Today they represent 25 percent of our business.”

As the market expands, so do the possibilities. “Really there are no limitations. If you remove the side walls, the end walls and the roof, essentially you have a moment frame, which is something common to engineering and construction. The advantage of a shipping container is that the moment frame is pre-engineered to a certain load. That structure is essentially like a Lego; it is a building block. It allows architects to easily come up with designs and configurations using those rectangular moment frames. And because of that really there are no limitations.”

The team boasts an impressive portfolio of shipping container creations. “Over the years we have done a little bit of everything,” Mr. Harris says. “We’ve built underwater tack rooms, we’ve built apartment complexes, we’ve built trade show booths, we’ve built bars, coffee shops, just about anything that we can think of and the architect can think of.”

One of the company’s most notable recent projects is an apartment building in Washington D.C. designed by Travis Price Architects to create affordable housing for Catholic University students. The client was looking for a low-cost, environmentally friendly solution that would be accepted by the surrounding residential neighborhood. “They had really put a lot of thought into it, and they committed themselves to using used shipping containers,” says Mr. Harris. CubeDepot assisted with everything from the selection and fabrication of the shipping containers to the delivery and onsite instillation. “We did everything for that project with the exception of the finish work on the inside.”

The team used 18 40-foot shipping containers to create the groundbreaking apartments. Each floor consists of six containers, lined up in two rows. Each of the three floors includes six bedrooms, each with a private bathroom, as well as a common living room and kitchen. The sleek interior is modern and minimalist, while the exterior is an eye-catching combination of glass panels and corrugated steel. “There was a little pushback from their neighbors,” Mr. Harris admits, “because they heard they were going to have 18 shipping containers parked next to their home in an old school colonial neighborhood. But it worked; visually it is appealing.” The concept – and cost savings – also proved appealing to tenants. At $1,000 a month, each unit “sold out before they even built it.”

A 45,000 square foot warehouse in Oakland, California demonstrates that size is no stumbling block for shipping container construction. SteelMaster specially designed a 60’x60’ roofing system with a 25’ vertical clearance, while CubeDepot created the walls by stacking shipping containers one on top of another like giant building blocks. The end result is edgy and minimal, as well as cost efficient. Mr. Harris estimates that using shipping containers allowed the team to complete the job in one tenth of the time that traditional building methods would have required. “So not only did they save on cost, but this thing came to life really quickly. That is another huge advantage to using shipping containers. [The client] wants to get to the point that they are generating revenue as quickly as possible, so when you are talking about a ten month or 11 month time savings, the dollars quickly add up.” In fact, the system that the team used in Oakland is so advantageous that CubeDepot utilized the same concept to create the company’s production facility in Santa Barbara.

CubeDepot’s shipping container buildings have been so successful that the team is working on creating a standardized system that will help make their solution more widely available. “We worked with AB Design and designed a modern office space that we feel is something repeatable,” Mr. Harris explains. “We have been working the last year to come up with all the little details, the bells and whistles, and to address some of the hurdles that you might face on a local building level.” Dubbed a ME:OU, or Modular Expandable: Office Unit, the 20’ customizable office space is constructed out of two standard shipping containers and can comfortably accommodate at least four workstations. The sleek, trendy design is ideal for a range of professional applications. “We think that, for the amount of money that this is going to cost, the result is exceptional.”

A standardized office building is just the beginning. The team is also working on standardizing residential concepts, from rustic vacation cabins to permanent housing similar to the apartment complex the team installed in Washington D.C. But, CubeDepot is careful not to put the cart before the horse. “As much as we want to push the envelope, we have to be careful not to get too far ahead. Creating is one thing, but if you are creating something that is going to sit on the shelf for five years you have made a business mistake.”

Joining forces with the right partners is crucial. “We are careful to align ourselves with folks who are interested in seeing these projects come to life,” Mr. Harris explains. “As a business, we have to make sure that we align ourselves with folks who can handle the side of those transactions that we are not involved in.” Currently, CubeDepot is working with multiple partners in order to lead the market with a variety of bold, new initiatives. From a new project in Dublin to a storm shelter in the Midwest that “can withstand the highest level of tornado documented,” CubeDepot’s current developments require vision and commitment. “All of these things take time, but they all continue to move forward. I think, over the next year or so, we are going to see a lot of these projects come to life.”

With so much on the table, CubeDepot is expecting 50 to 60 percent year on year growth for the next three to five years. The company plans to open new locations in Houston, Baltimore, and Tennessee to increase their distribution capabilities and seize the opportunities at hand. “We feel like we are in the middle of something big,” Mr. Harris remarks. “The more the architectural and design community get to play with these Legos, the more they are going to come up with creative ideas. I think the conversation that we have five years from now is going to be much different from the one we have today – and we are excited to be a part of that.”



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