A crane lifts a shipping container to construct an apartment building

Are Shipping Containers the Future of Affordable Housing?

At Watts Works in Los Angeles, Studio One Eleven has discovered the power of modular construction to efficiently fill the housing gap, provided city bureaucracy gets out of the way.

Employing shipping containers to create an apartment building is not new. Employing them to create studios for the formerly unhoused in one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Los Angeles is. Watts Works, a community of 24 studio apartments (and a one-bedroom manger unit) is constructed from 58 shipping containers on a corner lot in the once notorious South Central L.A. community of Watts. The project, which replaced a decaying single-family house, was designed by Long Beach architects Studio One Eleven, a veteran firm that has designed plenty of affordable projects, and modular ones, but never a modular affordable project. It’s a symbol of the potential for such efficient construction methods—shipping container or otherwise—to reshape the woefully underbuilt affordable housing sector. Alas, it’s also a symbol of that field’s profound limitations.

Watts Works rises four stories along the east side of Compton Ave, with its Tetris-like white and charcoal form enlivened by a glowing shawl of lime green outdoor stairs. Each of its 320 square foot single occupancy micro units consists of two merged 8’ x 20’ containers, which were modified off site and installed via crane as finished modules, already containing furnishings, fixtures, and even appliances. The containers were then covered with cement board. Floor to ceiling vertical windows and horizontal kitchen cutouts flood simple units with natural light, while trees, succulents, and other plantings outside lend a sense of soft serenity.

The complex also includes a community room, laundry room, service provider offices, and bicycle parking, not to mention a tranquil rear patio and a sunny rooftop deck. Since few of the residents drive, there is only one parking spot taking up space.

The rooftop garden, with its planter boxes and cozy furnishings, is especially charming, affording panoramic views of the neighborhood, including a few affordable housing projects that are not quite as inspired. One tenant, Hubirasi Perez, says he is constantly up there, getting his needed “chill time.” Perez suffers from severe kidney problems, and couldn’t get in line for a transplant until he had a home like this. (Perez and his wife had been living in their car.) Now he’s clear for a transplant, and just having a bed and a shower are blessings. “It’s the best,” he says of his space. He likes to look at the mountains from his window, especially when the sun comes out.

The rooftop deck at WattsWorks

Tenants gather at a monthly meeting with community director Jermela Booker to air issues and get time together. “A lot of people here had no structure,” says Booker. “This home has helped them grow and become independent. But they can still reach out when they need help. They can feel ok to be vulnerable.”

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This modular home could become a model for more affordable properties, say Studio One Eleven. Employing the container modules, says the firm, saved about 12.4 tons of CO2 emissions, and cost 10 to 15 percent less than conventional methods. (The cost was about $420,000 per unit, making it much more cost effective than many local affordable projects.) Substantial energy savings come from rooftop solar panels and passive strategies that maximize shading and allow air to flow freely. Open stairs at each end of the building, in conjunction with open corridors provide cross-ventilation and encourage tenant use to engage in a healthy lifestyle.

But because of the many shortcomings around affordable housing, say the architects, the project was much less efficient than it could have been, making future residents wait months and months longer than they should have. On top of unavoidable issues like COVID and its supply chain and staffing problems, local bureaucracy, says firm design director Michael Bohn, had no tolerance for even the slightest irregularities. For instance, accessibility clearances were off by less than a quarter inch in both the stairs and in kitchens. Both had to be ripped up and constructed again.

“We’re not airplane engineers,” argues Bohn, who understands why the rules are in place, but worries the pendulum has swung too far. “It’s missing the forest for the trees,” adds Greg Comanor, partner at the project’s developer, Daylight L.A. “I’m all for accessibility and creating housing options for all, but the city has tied its hand behind its back because there’s little flexibility. We’re being wasteful.”

Bohn and his colleagues recently authored a letter to L.A. Mayor Karen Bass outlining “Ten Points” to improve Affordable Housing construction. These include eliminating off-site improvement costs, incentivizing adaptive reuse, allowing reasonable accessibility tolerances, and encouraging modular by making streamlining local approvals—which in California are much more burdensome than those at the state level. (The state deputizes third parties to approve modular projects in the factory).

Comanor adds that the public sector should also try to support factories that help produce modular affordable projects. “It’s really hard. The economics are not favorable. But I do think it’s an incredible tool and it’s going to get more ubiquitous. That being said, it will take public support.”

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