Driftless Home & Garden: Containing our enthusiasm – A search for an empty nest abode

A line of containers await their second season of usefulness near Waukon, as news writer Denise Lana pursues her dream of having an empty nest abode for her and her husband. Discover the ins and outs of container homes as an alternative storage and housing option (think tiny homes) in the Lanas’ quest for a cost-effective place to call their own near their current home in Decorah. The design options allow creativity to flow, bounded only by one’s budget and imagination. Included in this article is a dive into the city codes and ordinances that can affect where and when a person can utilize this option, and how many more containers – and change – is on the horizon. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Denise Lana)

By Denise Lana,

A line of containers await their second season of usefulness near Waukon, as news writer Denise Lana pursues her dream of having an empty nest abode for her and her husband. Discover the ins and outs of container homes as an alternative storage and housing option (think tiny homes) in the Lanas’ quest for a cost-effective place to call their own near their current home in Decorah. The design options allow creativity to flow, bounded only by one’s budget and imagination. Included in this article is a dive into the city codes and ordinances that can affect where and when a person can utilize this option, and how many more containers – and change – is on the horizon. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Denise Lana)

When my Iowa native husband Scott retired from his federal air traffic control job in 2020, we wanted to move from our then-homestead in northern Virginia back to his homeland, the revered ‘Land of Where the Tall Corn Grows.’ After whittling down our city choice from a short list of Iowa municipalities, we knew Decorah was where we wanted to raise our school-age children and weave ourselves into the town’s eclectic population. Being of a certain age, he and I often joked that our forever house would be the house we would die in, so when it came time for us to buy our Decorah home, we knew we had one chance to get it right.  

The house we chose was perfect for our family. We have two boys who are both autistic, and we chose the best dwelling tailored for their unique personalities and limitations. We chose a residence in ‘the flats’ with no heavy traffic, located blocks from downtown so they could travel anywhere in town by foot. Their basic needs could be met with minimum effort. 

But what about us, their aging parents? Before the move, we chose our house with the plan that we would transform a downstairs room into a ‘parent wing’ when the time came. Since moving in, the room we had designated for our later-life abode has turned into a catch-all family room and isn’t a good an option for the suite where Scott and I will one day walk softly together into that dark night. We have lived in our house for nearly three years now, and with each passing year, Scott and I joke that we are one year closer to pining for the fjords.  

I started researching and keeping my mind open to other options and ideas for Scott’s and my empty nest abode. An apartment above downtown? All those stairs. Buy another smaller house nearby? Housing isn’t available. One of those she-sheds? Turn the third garage stall into a cozy apartment? Seemed like a no brainer, right? Well, research into the ordinances led me to discover accessory dwelling units (that’s the fancy term for a secondary house) weren’t allowed in Decorah.  

I guess Scott and I could just pitch a tent under a local bridge, heckle hikers and become fishmongers!  We joked, but affordable alternative housing options was, and is, a serious issue.  

Not just for us, as I have discovered. A LOT of older parents, as well as parents with older children, single adults, young families and others, don’t have reasonable options for housing. As a news writer, I attend council meetings, planning and zoning meetings, housing brainstorming groups and the like. Earlier this year, as City Council and P&Z discussed options for affordable housing, those discussions included relaxing the restrictions regarding secondary houses built behind primary residences. This was an answer to my prayer, it meant I could transform part of my garage into an accessory aging unit! I excitedly shared this good news with Scott, who was much less excited than I. The cost of construction and labor could easily quell my plans.  How could I get so close and not be able to snatch that ripe plum from its branches?

A two-word solution

But, as Bob Dylan sang, ‘the times they are a changing.’ During a recent Planning and Zoning (P&Z) meeting I attended, my granny flat fantasies again found shape and form. Vice chair for P&Z, Marla Klocke, brought into focus a simple two-word solution to the myopic housing shortage issue: container homes.  

What in tarnation is a container home?  Boy, did she have my attention! Immediately I began web surfing researching container homes and the like.  Being from North Carolina, home to 12% of the United States’ trailer parks, I initially pictured a container home being like a trailer without the wheels. But as I scrolled and swiped and was pulled under the strong current of internet waters, I discovered that the container home Marla was discussing wasn’t the mobile home of my simple southern upbringing. Simply put: a small home built in a shipping container.  

A shipping container is like a manufactured home, in that its parts are all made and assembled in a factory before being put together and affixed to a foundation. Every part of a container is steel and is constructed to be wind and watertight. The frame for a manufactured home is steel, but its walls are usually made of vinyl or aluminum siding attached to a 2×4 wood base.  

I pored over page after page of articles: containers vs. mobile homes, containers vs. modular homes, container vs. traditional homes.  The real clincher for me was the cost.  A home built using containers averaged a quarter of the price of a traditional stick-built home and about a third of the price of a manufactured home. Price is what you pay, value is what you get. Seemed to me the container house was far and away the best value of the three options for us, and I knew I had to speak to Marla to find out more. 

I approached Marla and introduced myself, stressing my interest in learning more about container homes. Two days later, she and I sat across from one another with dozens of pictures of container structures spread across the table between us. I was mesmerized! They looked NOTHING like a cold rectangular box. Farmhouse, split level, bungalow, A-frame the houses pictured spanned all types.  

I learned that Marla was so much more than the vice chair of P&Z. She was the owner of her own business, Design Solutions, and had spent more than 30 years designing home projects and running interference between contractors and homeowners. 


Alternative housing needs – the tiny home

Having lived in Decorah for three decades, Marla expressed her concern about the housing shortage really started about three years ago when the popularity of Airbnb’s accelerated in the Midwest. From that thought, Marla began looking into options for alternative housing, and really got on board with the tiny house movement. Tiny houses became all the rage as the cost of housing skyrocketed and folks wanted to downsize their footprint on the environment. Marla explained that she discovered container homes as part of her tiny home research. 

“I found that the use of containers is endless,” Marla explained to me. “Business spaces, home offices, mother-in-law suites, you name it.” 

When she saw the impact of the housing shortage in Decorah, Marla felt containers would be a great viable answer. “COVID-19 affected the cost of goods, and Airbnb’s in town increased. Young families couldn’t find housing and all this happened at the same time, it was a perfect storm,” Marla explained. 

She ran all the numbers and compared the cost of traditional construction to container construction. “A ground up structure built to duplicate a 20-foot container would cost around $19,000 to $22,000 to build and take 2 weeks, but a container structure is ready to go at around $4,000.” 

She sat down with City Manager Travis Goedken right after he took the reins in 2021, sharing with him her concerns and ideas. “I told him that the housing issue started with construction. People couldn’t afford to build homes,” she recalled. “Travis and the entire City Staff have worked diligently since then to update ordinances; it has a been this natural progression.” 

Current Decorah city code prohibits containers in all residential zoning districts, but the ordinance for residential bulk regulations was recently amended to allow a second story to be constructed on top of the building. Now, primary homeowners can build a second story above their garage and have the option of creating an additional personal space for their family. However, that space cannot be used as a rentable dwelling. That is the next step in the process, which will be tackled Monday May 8 as P&Z reviews and discusses changes to the ADU ordinance. Organically, the ordinance amendment would then go to City Council for review and further amendments before a public hearing is held and three readings take place before the Council votes to accept or deny the amended ordinance. If that hurdle is crossed, the entire process would then repeat with the focus changing to approving shipping containers as acceptable options for ADUs. 

I contacted 20 towns in Winneshiek and four surrounding counties to find out if any area municipality allowed ADUs and/or was utilizing containers for its housing or storage needs. Most of the city representatives I spoke with shared that either their town didn’t allow ADUs and containers, or the idea of ADUs and containers had never come up. I did discover that Ossian allows containers and currently has several residents with containers on their properties. Several other small communities with trailer parks said that maybe container buildings would meet the trailer park’s requirements, but they weren’t sure. How can such an affordable and globally popular building option be virtually unheard of in Northeast Iowa? With the growing housing shortage spreading its capillaries into Iowa towns and municipalities, this seems like a no-brainer answer to a growing need!  

I poked around on the internet and discovered that yes, container homes and buildings are the new rage. In California, half of the building permits issued in 2021 were for container homes and buildings. Globally, the market for container homes was valued at just under 57 billion dollars in 2021 and is expected to grow to 87 billion by 2029, according to Fortune Business Insights online. 

Iowa began allowing containers to be used as building structures in 2017, and according to containerhub.com, a shipping container home in Iowa can run between $15K and $50K, as compared to the cost of a traditionally constructed Iowa home, which is around $550K. 

Getting the skinny from the source

On a field trip with Marla, we met Mike Henning, a local construction business owner who sells shipping containers. Between Decorah and Waukon, we turned down a serene dirt road before turning onto a long driveway. Then, like some wide angled shot from a dramatic movie scene, I saw them. Shipping containers neatly lined up on the horizon, spaced apart with OCD-like precision akin to soldiers at open ranks. Mike met us as we parked, and I immediately started drilling Mike with my questions. How much? Life span? How many sold? How to upgrade?

Mike, with a calmness and easy demeanor I have come to refer to as ‘Iowa kindness,’ addressed my queries with a calm voice and professional ease. Mike explained that he fell into the container business by accident when he bought one for his adult son’s farm property as a storage building for four-wheelers and outside vehicles. 

“I started researching them in spring 2018, and by summer I had bought 10 to rent out,” Mike explained. “I then bought a few more to sell or rent, and we might have sold 5 the first year, then 10 the next year, then 15 and 20-some last year,” he added. 

According to Mike, each container is new, and are referred to as ‘one-trips’ since they are only used one time before being offered for sale. Mike purchases 10 to 20 at a time and has sold about 70 or in the five years since starting his container side business. Mike explained to me that most customers use the containers as storage, but that is starting to change. 

“One customer is going to cut windows and doors in it and finish it as a cabin,” said Mike. 

I was mesmerized as I walked along his property and saw all the immaculate steel boxes. I was dizzy with ideas of how I could place a container between my house and garage and link the two together. I could then build on top of my garage by cutting and placing containers in a manner that honored the new ADU ordinance requirements. The cost of containers could cut my coach house fantasy costs by tens of thousands! I was hooked. 

Mike detailed how a container could be insulated with spray insulation and painted, no dry wall needed. A sliding door could be added at the end of the container, and windows could be easily inserted by cutting the steel siding. 

“I put a patio door on one I insulated, it’s an easy way to put light and ventilation in the container without having to cut holes for windows.” 

Multiple containers can be cut and connected, and they can even be stacked and become multileveled. Usually, the containers are placed on poured slabs and anchored by locking them to corner castings. Mike added that he has his own container he converted for vacations. 

“We used a container as my camper,” he said. “I added a 5-foot patio door in the middle, with one inch of spray foam. We loaded it up and had it down at the river seven or eight times one summer. When we were done, I’d load it up and bring it back home, it was simple for me.” 

Although electrical conduit can be installed and siding put up inside with electrical outlets like a standard house, it’s not necessary. According to Mike, if someone wanted electricity they could stud a wall, but he’s run conduit along the top and had outlets dropping down along the walls. Marla added that plumbing could be done the same as other construction when building a slab structure, with rough-in plumbing accomplished before the concrete slab is formed. 

Mike has a separate container he uses for his employees on construction sites, equipped with two inches of insulation and a 12-setting heater. “When it was down to 20 degrees outside, it got up to 65 degrees inside in no time.” 

Local businesses are slowly catching the container fever, with one auto body business in Decorah implementing a 40-foot container for parts and projects, and a tractor shop utilizing three containers for storage. 

As my visit with Mike was winding down, I could tell Marla was as excited about these as I was. We chatted excitedly back and forth with barely a breath to spare. “These are so conducive for parents who travel half the year, or young adults who have graduated from high school and want to stay near home,” Marla said. “Don’t forget the college students who want to stay in the area after graduating.” 

In the end, the numbers don’t lie. Containers are super affordable, eco-friendly, and long-lasting with some estimates for longevity ranging between 30 to 50 years, even 100 years according to one website. At that rate, I will have shuffled off this mortal coil long before my container contraption wears out.

I hope to one day see lots of uniquely designed containers in the back yards of neighbors as I drive through the flats, or maybe cozy retirement container home communities. Maybe then I will be ready to take my husband’s hand and skedaddle my way to that great big container home in the sky. 

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