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Cargominiums: Shipping Container Apartments Looking to Disrupt Real Estate Industry

Brent Warren Brent Warren Cargominiums: Shipping Container Apartments Looking to Disrupt Real Estate IndustryPhoto by Brent Warren.
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The developers of a 25-unit apartment building taking shape on Old Leonard Avenue think that they are onto something big, and a quick look at the project’s timeline shows why. After breaking ground in November, it took just five days to stack and weld 54 shipping containers together to form the basic shape of the three-story building. The first residents could move in to one of the 640 square-foot, two-bedroom units as soon as May.

“Time is money,” said Derrick Pryor, Principal of AES Development, “that’s one of the major benefits of this way of building.”

Pryor was brought on to lead the development side of the project by Michele Reynolds, CEO of Nothing into Something Real Estate (NISRE), a non-profit organization that provides a wide range of supportive services.

Reynolds saw shipping containers as a potentially cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way for the organization to make the leap into building its own housing. She also came up with a name – Cargominiums – that the organization has trademarked.

“We saw it as an opportunity,” said Reynolds. “These containers come one-way into the US and then they just stockpile in shipping yards..so this is a way to reuse them, but it’s also a way to solve a problem. There’s an affordable housing crisis here – not just in Columbus but nationwide – so what better purpose but to take it and build housing that can solve a social problem?”

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The Cargominum building will be mixed-income by design, explained Pryor; “so someone who is transitioning and needs supportive, wrap-around services, could be living right next door to someone who is just downsizing. That way you don’t quarantine or heard poverty, you allow a cross-cultural experience to be had between people who might, in traditional housing, have these disparate expeiences and may never cross paths…it benefits everyone.”

“And we think that that, coupled with the building material, is disruptive,” added Pryor. “It is an innovation that breaks the norm in a particular industry, in this case the real estate industry.”

If it sounds like Pryor and NISRE have plans beyond the 25 units currently under construction, that’s because they do.

“We are building this model because we want to scale it,” said Reynolds, adding that a number of local and regional developers have inquired about the project, and that the building technique they are developing – in collaboration with general contractor Barry Cummings, of Chelsi Technologies – could be applied to anything from student housing to hotel construction.

A second phase of the Cargominiums project is also on the table. Reynolds said it would likely offer a for-sale product, although exactly where it would be built has not been determined.

For now, the team is staying busy with Phase One, fielding daily calls and emails from people interested in living there. Pryor said that the location – on one side is a small residential neighborhood that has not seen much investment in recent years, on the other a jumble of warehouses and light-industrial users – offers plenty of upside.

“This is a community that has really embraced this project, in part because there has not been a lot of attention paid to it, but this is also a community that has some incredible assets,” he said, like a downtown view and quick access to I-670 and East Fifth Avenue.

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“We didn’t get push-back from the neighborhood,” said Reynolds. “Anywhere else in Columbus, we may have have had a lot of opposition, but here, we got embraced.”

Although not the first shipping container building by any stretch, most of the completed projects have been clustered on the coasts. Pryor and Reynolds also think that the Cargominium building will be one of the largest structures of its kind, and the first to feature covered parking underneath underneath elevated containers (six spots will be covered, with additional parking in a surface lot).

Building with shipping containers is not without its challenges – many meetings with the city were required to ensure that the building would comply with building codes, which were written with traditional construction methods in mind.

The financing has also been untraditional, with capital from a mix of private and quasi-public lenders (including IFF, the Finance Fund and the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County), but no Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the most common way that affordable housing gets built in Columbus.

“We think the financing is another thing that’s unique about the project,” said Pryor, “it makes it more affordable and more sustainable.”

For more information on the Cargominium apartments and the group’s other projects, see www.nisreinc.org.

All photos by Brent Warren.

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