Zach and Brie Smithey of St. Charles, Missouri, have remodeled several homes, but none of them were the perfect fit. “We were looking for something that wasn’t quite the norm,” Zach explains.
“We renovated homes built in 1880, 1904, and the 1970s. With each house, we got closer to our flavor, but never quite hit it,” he says. “We realized that to do something different, we had to start from scratch—to get what we really wanted, we couldn’t follow someone else’s template.”
When they purchased an empty lot in 2011, they pictured building a more traditional house made out of conventional materials. But as the years passed, their vision shifted, and at some point, they stopped thinking about what a house should be and began wondering what other forms it might take. Ideas such as a concrete house, a geodesic dome, and a tiny house were weighed and rejected. “Realistically, how many people could live in a tiny house for the rest of their lives?” wonders Brie.
The couple doesn’t remember how the concept was raised, but when the idea of a container house came on their radar, it immediately felt right. “I had never seen one before, and I wasn’t even sure they existed,” Zach says. Online searches convinced them and informed them that if they built a container house, they’d be the first in the area to do so.
“We chose a container house because it gave us the most bang for our buck,” says Brie. “It allowed us to use recycled materials, which was important to us. The cost of it, and the fact we did so much of it ourselves, allowed us to live mortgage free, which was also important to us.”
Little did they know that at the time they were doing the research, their future home was sitting in a nearby container yard. “Once we decided to do this, I found a broker that sources containers from container yards across America,” Zach says. “There are many options: You can buy them new, used, or ready to be retired.”
The couple chose the last option, feeling that a few dents only add to the character of the units. They ended up with containers that had been built in Shanghai and traveled around the world 12 times on boat, train, and truck before coming to rest in North St. Louis. “We found eight 40-foot containers, each one with nine-foot-high ceilings,” Zach says. “We paid $1,600 for each, and $375 to have each of them delivered, so they ended up being about $2,000 apiece. The whole project cost us about $135,000.”
The couple had the containers delivered to their lot, used a crane to stack them in a giant cube shape (there are four containers on the bottom and four on the top), and began shaping them into their home. “Building a regular house is an additive process—you put more on it day by day,” says Zach. “But in a house like this, it’s more of a subtractive process. You stack up the containers, and then you carve away the walls you don’t need.”
Before we go on with this story, there are a few things you need to understand about the Smitheys. The first is that Zach is an artist and that informs his remodeling projects. “For me and my art, it’s all about the process, not the end result,” he says. “This house is just like a big sculpture project. I figured it out as I went along, and the journey was more important than the destination. In the end, we have something we couldn’t have imagined at the beginning if we had had a hard and fast goal we were aiming at.”
The second thing you need to know is that he and his wife appear to be the types who see things differently. For example, what mere mortals consider a packing pallet, this couple sees as a building opportunity/free wood. “The great thing is that once people know you think this way, they seek you out and unload stuff,” says Zach. Indeed, when they talk about the home, very little is new and explanations are peppered with phrases like: “My friend was remodeling a house and had to get rid of a lot of brick” or “My friend’s wife works at a JCPenney that cancelled a remodel and had a lot of extra materials.”
Finally, this is a couple that’s seemingly unfazed by things they don’t initially know how to do. He’s an artist and she had worked as a massage therapist—but they didn’t hesitate to purchase and operate a restaurant (Miss Aimee B’s Tea Room & Gallery), something they’d never done before. She later founded Brie’s Protein Bars, a health food company. They apply this can-do attitude to remodeling; so having no direct experience with container buildings was no problem.
“Really, the only way to learn how to remodel is to remodel,” says Zach. “We did most of it ourselves, save for the electric, plumbing, and HVAC. Because we were doing it ourselves, we were constantly changing tasks and using/developing new skills. It was exhausting and went on 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for a year and 14 days."
Brie agrees that the process was difficult. “I expected it to be hard—if it were easy, everyone would be doing it,” she allows. “What I didn’t expect is how difficult it would be to work with the metal. It’s heavy, it’s thick... YouTubers make it look easy, but trust me, it’s not for everyone.”
In the most basic terms, here’s what they did: Stacked up the containers, cut out openings between them, built a frame within the metal shell, put in the utilities, and then hung the drywall (except in strategic places where they left the metal exposed).
Of course, that simplistic explanation doesn’t even begin to cover the improvisation that went into it. “I figured it out as I went along,” says Zach. The figure-it-out-as-you-go style is responsible for features like antique arched windows hung upside down in the living room (they were left behind at their restaurant, rescued from an old church next door); baseboard and crown molding made from randomly cut boards from packing pallets; and cement board painted in a rainbow of drip patterns and installed as shower walls.
Throughout, recycled materials are everywhere you look. In addition to the aforementioned items, rope pulled from the mud on the banks of the Mississippi was cleaned and used to frame a television; birdbaths and a fountain plucked from a landscaping company’s boneyard find new life as sinks and a plumbed bar table; a combine chain and tractor hooks are used to support a wall-hung vanity in the upstairs bath; and a conch shell is repurposed as a faucet in a bathroom on the main floor.
Of course, none of this was easy or without headaches. “If, during construction, we encountered a problem we looked at it as an opportunity to innovate,” Zach says.
Anything this different is bound to inspire curiosity—especially in a small community like St. Charles (population: 69,293). “When we were building it, not a day went by without someone coming into the house and asking questions,” says Zach. The curiosity reached such a pitch, that the couple decided to host a community open house on May 20, the day the last light fixture was hung. The couple anticipated a few hundred people, and they were surprised when 2,000 showed up. “I was in shock,” says Brie. “Negative comments always seem louder than positive ones, but that day, it seemed like the house was full of positive comments and so many compliments.”
The couple decided to make it a benefit for the local animal shelter, and ended up raising $8,000 at the door for the organization.
To this day, it’s still attracting attention, with cars slowing down as they drive past and people gawking. “We don’t mind, and good things have come of it,” says Zach. Those things include two building commissions for him: a shipping container makers’ lab for a St. Louis elementary school and another shipping container house for a couple in St. Louis.
And, while community interest isn’t waning, neither is the family’s love for their just-right home. “I still can’t believe I live here,” says Zach. “It’s the home we hoped it would be.”