Apparently, converting shipping containers into houses is a trendy thing in some parts of the country, but it's one that has been slow to catch on here.
Now, with a business on the South Side wanting to use a container to expand its premises, the trend has come to Huntington, and the city council is trying to decide what if anything needs to be done about it.
What people have done is take containers in good shape - preferably those that have been used only once or twice - and place one or more on foundations, add doors and windows and remodel (if that's the word) the interiors. It's not necessarily a cheap endeavor. Some container homes can cost as much as a stick-built house.
Now that a coffee shop on 8th Street wants to build a patio from a container, a national trend has become a local matter.
Tuesday evening, the city council gave first reading to an ordinance that would prevent people from converting shipping containers into structures in residential districts.
The ordinance allows for shipping containers to be converted into business structures or industrial offices in other districts. It also sets standards on how containers may be used for storage for businesses and construction sites, or for people using a portable container moving service at their homes.
Under the ordinance, people would be able to place a container in front of their house for no longer than 30 days and not more than twice a year.
City Planner Shae Strait said this ordinance would not affect the coffee shop's construction. The need for the ordinance was raised when the Planning and Zoning office received more than five phone calls inquiring about using shipping containers, including one for overflow storage near the city's historical district.
"We did want to build office buildings out of them, or industrial offices. Those things would be fine," he said. "However, it was chosen to regulate them in such a way as to not be permitted as residential units, residential structures or to be used in residential districts as permanent structures."
Council member Jennifer Wheeler, who chairs the Planning and Zoning Committee, said the ordinance is shutting the door but it is not "being locked."
"We were approaching this as we were expecting an additional ordinance in the future that would reconsider this," she said. "In the meantime, it's important to have something on the books that would prevent any unwanted developments that happened until the planning department had time to craft something I know they are capable of doing."
Strait said if this ordinance passes, he plans to introduce regulations on how the shipping containers could be used as residential structures by the end of the year.
It's too early in the conversion trend to say how these containers-turned-into-buildings will age. Over time, converted container buildings will probably have other problems we don't foresee now.
The council has time to receive public comment and study the public demand for container buildings before it must take a final vote on this ordinance. Or the council could table it for further study.
The demand for container buildings is there. It's important that regulations be written soon to protect residential areas from what could be an unnecessary long-term problem while also allowing people to have the kind of housing they want that meets current zoning laws.