Brewer company transforming shipping containers into buildings

Chad Walton (right), owner of SnapSpace Solutions in Brewer, and his daughter Kelsey Walton, the vice president show off a shipping container home Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. The company is getting ready to ship out a third of the converted container buildings they made.
Chad Walton (right), owner of SnapSpace Solutions in Brewer, and his daughter Kelsey Walton, the vice president show off a shipping container home Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. The company is getting ready to ship out a third of the converted container buildings they made.
Posted Dec. 11, 2011, at 1:29 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 11, 2011, at 8:09 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — The modular bunk house building that left the old Lemforder plant on Friday was made from two shipping containers that had been retrofitted with eight beds, two bathrooms and a kitchen.

“It doesn’t look like a shipping container, does it?” Bangor resident Chad Walton, president and CEO of SnapSpace Solutions Inc. asked on Wednesday while standing beside the converted shipping containers covered with vinyl siding and insulated with foam. “It looks like a ranch-style house.”

The bunk house, purchased by Northwoods Management for a location on the Golden Road in the Katahdin region, left Brewer on Friday. Its foundation was put into place Thursday.

“It’s seven and a half hours to drive up there and back and it will take about two hours to put it together and connect the electricity,” Walton said. “Later on we’ll put on a roof. That will take four additional hours.”

The roof is just for looks because shipping containers, which can be stacked when shipped by boat and are hauled all over the country by tractor-trailers, are rated to handle around 470,000 pounds.

“There is no worry about snow load,” Walton said. “They’re very solid and very storm proof.”

SnapSpace opened its doors in February and spent the first couple of months finalizing designs, setting up partnerships and ironing out the details needed to change the recycled shipping containers into modular buildings — homes, offices, dorms, emergency shelters and others.

“The cool thing about this is that it’s permanent-temporary,” Walton said, standing beside the bunk house. “It could be permanent for 60 years or temporary for six months. They can take it apart and move it whenever they want to.”

SnapSpace also sent two buildings to Eastport two weeks ago to create a weigh station control room with offices. Walton said customers can design their buildings to look like anything, such as a traditional New England home, and can cover them with vinyl, brick or any other siding.

Homes made of shipping containers are cheaper to build than stick-built homes and faster to put together than modular homes, Walton said. The cost of the recently shipped custom-made units was not released.

Walton is tapping into the increased global interest in the use of modular steel as intermodal steel building units, or ISBU, for building construction. ISBU technology is on the forefront of efficient, durable, low-cost structural architecture because shipping containers can be connected and stacked to create modular spaces, and a range of creature comforts can be added easily.

Container City, a four-story building in London that is filled with work studios and apartments built in 2001, is just one example of how to recycle the steel boxes.

The Brewer company also just signed a partnership agreement with Tempohousing of Amsterdam, which has built dorms, retail and office space and houses all over Europe using recycled shipping containers. In the future, Walton hopes to be shipping his product around the globe.

A total of 23 new jobs have been created by the bunk house project, and that doesn’t include the extra five people needed at the site, such as the crane operator, to install the building, Walton said.

“That’s 28 on this project, and this is a small project,” he said.

The reason why Walton decided to purchase the massive 126,000-square-foot former ZF Lemforder plant, which closed in 2010, is because his goal is to create an assembly line style manufacturing facility, which would be the first of its kind in the United States.

“Nobody has the assembly line like we have,” said Steve Libby, general manager who also is a former Lemforder employee. “When one comes in, the components are put in an assembly line here and its finished when it comes out.”

Walton said eventually he will need to hire more engineers, designers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders, painters and salespeople.

Maine Rural Development Authority supplied some of the company’s start up funds, and Walton is working with two University of Maine programs — the Knowledge Transfer Alliance and the Advanced Manufacturing Center.

“It’s been a partnership from the beginning,” D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer economic development director, said Friday. “I think they’re doing a fantastic job. It’s amazing what you can do with a container.”

A lot of not-so-visible work, including testing different building techniques and creating partnerships with Tempohousing and local companies such as Transtech and Cianbro, has been done since opening in February, Walton said.

“People see the empty parking lot and think ‘What is going on there?’” he said. “This is what we’ve been doing all these months.”

With finished products now leaving the plant, “It’s finally coming together,” Walton said.

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