LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Until recently, Joann Priddy lived in third world conditions while caring for her disabled mother and sister in a wood-frame shack south of Elizabethtown, Ky.
She cooked meals atop a wood-burning stove made from an oil drum, the only source of heat. Her toilet was an outhouse with a leaky roof and a shower curtain for privacy.
But that kind of living is over for her. She will be moving into a home that supporters believe will be the first of its kind in Kentucky — a shipping container converted into a house.
“I am going to decorate it and make it real pretty,” said Priddy, 55, who has been living with her brother nearby. A shipping container house, she added, “is enough for anybody.”
Cheap and sturdy, the containers — which have been turned into homes and buildings around the world — offer affordable, chic shelter for low-income residents, housing advocates say.
“Low, low, low income people have no way of getting into a home if we don’t do something like this,” said Holly Todd, a building consultant designing the steel dwelling for Kentucky Habitat for Humanity.
Measuring 40 feet long and 10 wide, Priddy’s “Container Shelter” will rest on concrete blocks. It will have three rooms, including a bathroom, and central heat and air. It is expected to cost around $25,000 in all.
The 20-year, no-interest mortgage will run an estimated $140 per month, an affordable amount since Priddy ekes by on a monthly $600 disability income, Todd said.
The containers also are being embraced by entrepreneurs in Louisville who agree they are cool, economical and right on trend for Kentucky.
In Butchertown, a neighborhood east of downtown Louisville, six of the steel boxes are being cut, welded, stacked and transformed into a stylish boutique, eatery and visitor center for the grand opening this fall of a new brandy distillery.
“We think the shipping containers are very hip, and stylish,” said Joe Heron, co-owner of Copper and Kings, which batch distills apple and grape brandies. “We also think they reflect the Butchertown ethos of grit and creativity. We think it’s going to look amazing.”
Elsewhere, the cargo containers are a staple of high chic in the downtown Las Vegas, Nev., retail and entertainment complex dubbed Container Park.
And in New Zealand, shipping containers were used recently to rebuild housing and shops in the wake of an earthquake. Students in the Netherlands have long dwelled in affordable housing made from shipping containers.
The containers are also a common form of temporary shelter for U.S. troops overseas, and a fixture of market stalls in poor African towns.
Now, fans of cargo container living and building say they are an answer for both affordable architectural style and a housing solution in Kentucky.
This fall, Habitat for Humanity will demonstrate a shipping container home as a model for the Appalachian town of West Liberty, where aged trailer homes were wiped out by tornadoes in 2012, said Mary Shearer, executive director of Kentucky Habitat for Humanity.
Purchased for as little as $3,000 each, containers meet the need for ultra affordable housing while poverty grows in Kentucky, Shearer said.
“Cargo communities are happening all around the world,” Shearer said. “It is not what Americans may think of as a house. But this is something we can do so people have something decent and affordable.”
“The time is ripe. Once you get off the main highways and into the little roads and hollers, it can be a desperate housing situation right here in Kentucky.”
Scott Turner, director of Hardin County Habitat for Humanity, which is building Priddy’s home, said the containers can be used to “get somebody out of a tent or a mobile home that is falling down.
“Thirty to 40% of our home repair projects are in mobile homes, where the floors are falling out and the roof is falling in,” he said.
Undeniably different, shipping containers pose a new dilemma for officials who oversee building codes. In Louisville, for example, there are no tailored regulations for the boxes, a simple welded steel frame structure with corrugated steel walls, said Dave Marchal, Metro Louisville’s assistant director of codes and regulations.
“They look cool in the magazines but a shipping container is not a building,” said Marchal, adding anyone contemplating building with cargo containers should consult with code officers first.
“It’s got to be on a permanent foundation,” he said. “We require an engineer stamp off on it to show it meets structural loads. You’ve got to modify the heck out of these things to meet code. By the time you get them habitable, you could have built a house.”
The building permits for the Butchertown shipping container project were authorized by city code enforcement officials, but not without many conversations, said Copper and Kings architect Ted Payne.
Louisville officials “just didn’t know quite how to deal with them,” Payne said.
For Priddy’s container home in Upton, roughly an hour drive south of Louisville, state building codes apply. To get preliminary approval from state building code officials, Habitat for Humanity officials were advised to install a traditional style, asphalt-shingled, peaked roof, Shearer said.
“The pitched roof helps the aesthetic value as well,” Shearer said, adding the cabin style may help cargo container homes find acceptance in Kentucky. “We could recycle barn wood siding for something cosmetic on the outside.”
And around town, welder and artisan Jeremy Semones has built garages out of shipping containers for two customers, and he said he he is looking for opportunities to craft more cargo creations.
“I am not reinventing anything,” said Semones, who is working on the Copper and Kings project and has built a vacation cabin from four containers.
“This has been done for years overseas,” he said. “I just want to get some traction here in Louisville. I want to give the public an idea of what they can have done.”