Chris and Kate Mager bubble over with excitement when speaking about their new home. One could say they can’t be contained. But they have been – in a 1,600-square-foot custom house made of shipping containers.
In 2019, the Magers decided to sell their Irondequoit home so Kate could be closer to her teaching job in Geneva. They wanted a house and land. Everything they saw was too expensive and with cookie cutter designs, and that just wasn’t going to work.
Whatever they purchased wouldn’t live up to the home they’d spent 15 years customizing – “a 1,200-square foot Cape in Irondequoit that was spectacular,” says J.D. Brown, a realtor with Keller Williams of Greater Rochester. “Chris had gutted it, removed ceilings, installed a soaring kitchen, wrought iron railings and an exposed staircase to a loft. He did all kinds of fabulous architectural things by himself.”
The only way to get an affordable, unique house would be to do it themselves.
After a year of fruitless searching, the Magers found themselves at a bank auction, where for $13,000 they purchased a five-acre wooded property in Junius, near Waterloo.
“I was watching HGTV Container Homes on TV and I thought they were super cool,” recalls Kate. “I told Chris, and he said, ‘We can totally do that.’”
Once the container idea set in, they couldn’t let it go. “Chris got out graph paper and had a bunch of designs drawn up over the course of a week,” Kate says.
They closed on the land March 13, 2020, and listed their Irondequoit house. They got nine offers and sold the house in four days.
“It made our heads spin,” Kate says.
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They have two children, ages 15 and 11, and decided to rent back the house until school was over. They began their research on where to find shipping containers —those large, reusable steel boxes made for transporting goods around the world.
Chris looked online and found a local company that had refurbished containers. There are different types of containers, Kate explains – refurbished ones in which the paint and rust are removed or one-trippers (which are containers that have only been used once to ship things, and then the containers are sold). “Part of what drew us to the project was to repurpose materials,” Kate says.
They hired a company to build a concrete foundation, prepare the land for the home, install septic, a well and a driveway. They had to clear trees and build up parts of the land because there were some swampy areas. They had a garage with a bathroom and laundry room built.
They had to get land use permits from the town of Junius and a building permit for the garage, driveway and the house itself through Seneca County — total costs were about $350.
Then they bought a two-bedroom, 36-foot RV, figuring they — along with their children, two rescue dogs and a cat — could live in it for what they thought would be five months while they built the house.
Although Chris is wildly handy and creative, he is not a construction professional; he owns The Remote Start Guy, a company that installs electronics in cars. So they took their design to friend and architect Michael Varland to flesh out the details and make sure their ideas were structurally sound.
The design is four shipping containers, stacked two on each side of the house with a structure between them built with lumber. A metal roof slants from one set of containers across to the other set. (Much of the roof faces south, and they plan to install solar panels.)
The first floor is common living space in an open floor plan — living room, kitchen, dining room — open all the way to the roof, which in some places is 23 feet high. There’s also an office/guest room and bathroom. Upstairs is a primary bedroom suite on one side and on the other two bedrooms for the children. A bridge spans across from one set of shipping containers to the other, connecting the upper floor bedrooms.
The containers, which were delivered on a flatbed truck June 16, 2020, are “high-cube” containers. They’re slightly taller than a standard shipping container, with the interior height nearly nine feet. The containers were craned into place atop 16 (eight on each side) concrete piers.
They cut out windows — 33 of them — and with the high volume of the central core, they have a lot of natural light, which was an important design feature. One thing on Kate’s wish list was a red front door, which she has. “It means welcome,” she says. “We want a place that’s unique, a showplace, but where everyone feels they belong. That’s the red door and every time I see it, it makes me smile.”
But it’s not as though they’re living in a metal box. In the rooms, Chris framed inside the container and installed closed cell spray foam insulation. To remain authentic to the materials, most of the ceiling and the interior walls are exposed corrugated metal.
The exteriors of the containers were painted before delivery. Inside, Chris removed rust and spray painted the walls white. While the containers retain heat well and will stay cooler in the summer, they will have air conditioning. (Lucky for them Chris’ family owns Arctic Refrigeration in Batavia.)
The Magers began with a budget of about $175,000 (not including the land purchase). That includes the cost of the 1,000-square foot garage and its foundation and land improvements. “A lot of people want to compare the actual cost of building just the house to a traditionally built house, but what we spent includes a lot more than just the house,” Kate says.
They had to add an additional $25,000 for professionals to do some of what they had thought they could do themselves. For example, building that middle section. They also hired Midlakes Welding in Phelps, N.Y., to help connect the corners of the shipping containers together as well as the bump out in the primary bedroom.
And, although they could do drywall themselves, Kate says, she and Chris had worked together drywalling the bathroom in the garage and “we wanted to strangle each other. We thought it best for our marriage to hire someone to do the drywall in the house.”
Building any home is a difficult undertaking, but if you Google shipping container homes, Kate says, “they make it sound cheap and easy.”
The Magers did some research online, but admit they were naïve; there was a lot they didn’t know about things like land improvement costs. “The figures online are not accurate. Not even close,” Chris says.
They way to get through it, Kate says is to be flexible, patient, and focus on the positives. And, “have a back-up plan for living. If we knew it would take this long, we would have had a different place to stay.”
They moved into the home in March 2021, about four months later than anticipated. COVID created delays for labor and materials. Kate admits it was tough living in the RV for so long, particularly during a pandemic, but they focused on the positives.
They have the support of their families, hers in Columbus, Ohio, and Chris’s in Batavia. The kids worked with Chris and learned to use tools, and “at the end of the day we have a full bathroom in the garage with a washer and dryer and a warm place to sleep. Living in such a tiny space for so long makes us appreciate how we’ve achieved this dream together.
My daughter even said that building this house has been a highlight. We’re building memories that will last a lifetime.”
To see how the Magers put this all together, follow them on Instagram @mager_container.