New Boise company making homes out of shipping containers

Scott Flynn, founder and CEO of IndieDwell, shows the model home at his manufacturing facility in Boise in January. He said many of the energy efficient materials he used to convert this storage container home are the same he uses to build high-end custom homes.

When people visit IndieDwell’s factory in south Boise to see a home made from a steel shipping container, they envision how it will look: Boxy. Unattractive. Filled with low-end improvements.

Instead, they find a structure that’s hard to imagine was once a pair of 40-foot-long boxes used to haul cargo by ship, train and truck. There are seven high-performance windows to let light inside. Rooms have polished maple floors and quartz countertops.

And the two-bedroom, one-bath, 640-square-foot house is inexpensive: $65,000, uninstalled. A traditional stick-built home of the same size would cost at least $10,000 more to build, said Scott Flynn, IndieDwell’s CEO.

The new Boise company says its container homes offer one answer to the affordable-housing problem, with dwellings that are attractive, comfortable and trendy.

“We want to change people’s perceptions,” Flynn said. “They have one idea of what it looks like, and we want to show them the reality is something different.”

A 2015 housing study by the city of Boise found a deficit of more than 8,000 housing units for residents with incomes classified as very low and extremely low. The study found 9,500 housing units were needed during the following decade to maintain current housing conditions.

Flynn, a Boise native who also builds custom, high-end homes using green building concepts, said he was disturbed by the large number of people who can’t afford to buy their own homes. And by those he contends are forced to settle for a cheaper manufactured home that depreciates in value.

Shipping containers were invented by Malcom McLean, a former long-haul trucker, in 1956. Today, most shipping containers are made in China and are used from 12 to 15 years. The first patent for a shipping container home was issued in 1989 to Phillip Clark of Miami.

Used ones can be bought for several hundred dollars. Flynn obtains his from a company in Ontario, Oregon.

No container homes have been installed yet in Boise, said Hal Simmons, Boise’s planning director. They are permitted in residential neighborhoods and don’t require a planning and zoning hearing.

Tiny Idahomes, a Caldwell company that makes small homes meant to be placed on a trailer and driven from place to place like recreational vehicles, considered using shipping containers but decided not to, concluding that their overall cost differs little from a wood-framed structures.

“The containers still need to be insulated and the interiors and exteriors done,” co-owner Anca Collinsworth said. “It’s a lot of work, and the dollar amount is pretty much the same.”

Prices at Tiny Idahomes start at $40,000 for a home with 170 square feet.

Flynn wants cities and social service agencies to develop pocket neighborhoods or subdivisions with container homes.

His initial IndieDwell house, 16 feet wide and 9 1/2 feet high, was completed this month and is on display at the company’s container-rehabilitation site at 5997 Gowen Road.

The company plans to build 60 homes a year. Flynn envisions eventually building 2,000 a year. Once the company gears up production, Flynn believes it can complete a house in four days.

The company plans models using one, two and three containers and a four-plex combining eight containers on two levels. The finished homes go onto a foundation, just like wood-framed houses.

Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds homes for low-income people with volunteer labor and homeowners’ sweat equity, recently announced plans to build 35 homes made from four containers each in McKinney, Texas, north of Dallas. In Wilmington, North Carolina, a developer broke ground last month on nine live-work apartments in a shipping container village dubbed the Cargo District.

“No matter how small or large, every town has a housing crisis,” Flynn said.

One of the two containers in his model home houses the kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, one bedroom and a closet with hookups for a stacking washer and dryer. The other has the second bedroom, a combination living-dining room and a closet. The container walls between them have been cut away.

Flynn said his container home is up to 50 percent more energy-efficient than a traditional wood-framed home built to minimum code standards. The rigid polyurethane insulation, sandwiched between the boxes’ inner and outer steel walls, provides an R-21 rating. The federal Energy Star program recommends a minimum rating of R-13 in Idaho. The higher the number, the less heat or cold air escapes.

He estimates that it will cost about $55 a month for electricity, including heating and air conditioning.

The home features an energy-recovery ventilator that makes household air more comfortable and healthier by constantly exchanging fresh air from outside with stale air inside. It also heats or cools the incoming air with the air leaving, so the heater or air conditioner don’t have to work as hard, he said.

“We put these in our high-end, custom homes,” he said.

While some container home builders in other parts of the country leave the outer walls of the shipping containers for a rustic look, Flynn covered his with cement board siding. He wants his homes to look like traditional homes.

Flynn and Pete Gombert, the company’s executive chairman, expect high interest. They say that could include people who want environmentally responsible, smaller, high-quality housing but who earn higher incomes than the people IndieDwell is trying to serve. (Container homes are popular; HGTV has a show about them.) They want to discourage that.

“We’ve got to work with developers and organizations — primarily cities, counties, workforce housing groups — that can have the impact that we ultimately want to have,” Gombert said.

IndieDwell is offering tours of the completed home, by appointment.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell