Josh Atencio plans to be living in recycled shipping containers by year-end.
Atencio isn’t down on his luck. Rather, he’s embracing a trend toward modular, portable, lower-cost housing.
His home, which he will share with his girlfriend and 4-year-old son, will be made using four steel shipping containers that once were used to transport goods from China. It will encompass more than 1,100 square feet of space and include two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and office. It also will have a basement.
Atencio designed the home himself. He works for MODS International, a Grand Chute company that specializes in container homes.
“I’m very excited,” Atencio said. “It’s really an awesome thing to design your own home. Most people don’t really get to do that.”
Douglas Larson, president of MODS (Modular On Demand Structures) International, said the use of 40-foot and 20-foot shipping containers for the shell of houses and commercial buildings is popular in Europe but has yet to take hold in the United States.
He said container houses cost less than traditional construction — about $100 a square foot — and offer all of the amenities of a typical house, including electrical, water and sewer service. The houses are built at the company’s factory in Oshkosh. They can be delivered and set up in a single day.
“They finish up beautiful inside,” Larson said. “They’re nicer than most homes.”
Larson said MODS International has manufactured and sold about 300 container homes worldwide. Atencio’s home will be the first of its kind in the Fox Valley.
Atencio, 32, and his girlfriend, Aubrey Lorge, initially planned to locate their container home on property in the Town of Neenah.
The town falls under Winnebago County zoning regulations, and Lorge applied for a special exception because the zoning code requires the exterior walls of a single-family dwelling “to be covered with stucco, wood siding, cement-fiber siding, vinyl siding, metal horizontal lap siding, wood shingles, or a masonry veneer.”
In addition, the town said an architect would need to verify the structural integrity of the house before the building inspector would issue an occupancy permit.
“It’s such a foreign idea to us,” Clerk-Treasurer Ellen Skerke said. “There’s a lot of questions about it.”
Lorge subsequently withdrew her application for a special exception. She and Atencio now plan to build on Southwood Drive in the Town of Menasha.
The couple are under a tight schedule because HGTV plans to film the construction of the home in October as part of a new reality series titled “Living in a Box.”
The Town of Menasha has its own zoning regulations and doesn’t share the concern over the exterior walls.
“You can build a metal house if you want,” said George Dearborn, director of community development for the Town of Menasha. “We’re supportive of newer technology. The designs I’ve seen are pretty nice-looking buildings.”
Larson said the homes comply with international building codes.
Larson got the idea for MODS International after his construction company, Orion Builds, sent crews to New Orleans to rebuild the city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
He purchased 10 motor homes off eBay to house his crews in New Orleans. When they returned and parked next to a shipping container, Larson noticed the similarity in size and thought he could develop a better option for temporary housing.
Larson secured a patent, and MODS was founded in 2010. The company now ships its container structures all over the world.
Single-container houses, which have about 320 square feet of space, have proven popular for people displaced by a natural disaster and for workers in the oil fields of North Dakota. They are stronger than a conventional construction, can be built faster and are portable.
“You can pick them up and move them wherever you want,” Larson said.
Customers also have purchased the containers for hunting cabins or summer cottages. The steel doors and shutters can be locked to thwart break-ins when a container home is unoccupied.
The company has several single-container units on display at its headquarters at 5523 Integrity Way in Grand Chute.
MODS purchases the durable steel cargo containers from California. They arrive filled with electronics and other products from China.
Because the United States imports more from China than it exports, there is an excess of containers.
“The nice thing about them is they’re all modular,” Larson said. “This is like a Lego system. You can add and subtract. It’s so unique what we can do with these containers.”
The company is designing a 2,400-square-foot home in Mineral Point made from seven 40-foot containers and one 20-foot container. It also has made elaborate offices for businesses.
MODS is preparing for growth after the HGTV series airs in December and January.
“This will put our company on the map,” Larson said of the series. “We’re the first one in the United States that’s really doing this.”
— Duke Behnke: 920-993-7176, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @DukeBehnke