When Fort Atkinson resident Danielle Anderson purchased a lot on Buten Street, with hopes of building a rental unit, she thought she’d asked all the right questions. Instead, she found herself and her project at the center of a brewing controversy, which bubbled over last Wednesday. The public meeting was organized by Anderson, members of MODS International, the Appleton-based builder she hired to construct the home; and city officials, who had questions about her unusual project.
Anderson wants to build a 1,000-square-foot container home, which is already constructed and waiting for transport. She has invested about $89,000 in the home, which features a flat roof and modern exterior. Still, neighbors of the proposed home have said their traditional-style homes are stick-built and worth around $160,000. They worry that something so different would undermine area home values.
With about 30 in attendance at the Community House, Anderson, MODS International President Douglas Larson and Project Manager Dick Vock explained the advantages of container structures. Also in attendance were City Administrator Al Hulick, Public Works Director and building inspector Howard Robinson, Mayor Anissa Welch, and city council members Lynda Clark, Maxine Striegl, Ryan Holbrook, and Nancy Lader.
Seaworthy shipping containers, made exclusively in China, are the foundational material used to create a container house. MODS representatives said the containers they buy are up-cycled, they have been used once, typically to ship electrical components, then abandoned. They are tough, able to withstand weights up to 400,000 pounds, 200-mile-an hour winds, waves and sea salt.
As building materials, they are obtainable, inexpensive and easily configured into sturdy structures, making them an innovative possibility for oil industry “man-camp” housing in North Dakota, business showrooms at the Experimental Aircraft Association air show in Oshkosh and homes of varying sizes.
There is no lead-based paint or carcinogenic materials of any kind in these, Larson said.
“Everything is bolted and welded together,” Vock said. “We use Pella Windows and rubber roofs. We can put a deck up there.”
While the industry is young, MODS representatives pointed to 32 years’ worth of building experience through a companion company, Orion Builds, which is also in Appleton. MODS International was established 10 years ago and built its first container structure about eight year ago.
As Orion Builds, Larson said, “We’ve done some pretty innovative building projects. The Dan Hutson Center for the Green Bay Packers is one of our projects and we also did the first wind farm in the state of Illinois.”
MODS representatives spoke about a recent HGTV television series about container homes that features a MODS International build in Mineral Point.
“We're crisscrossing the country following builders who are giving their clients the homes of their dreams, out of shipping containers,” HGTV show promotional materials state.
What dreams may come
Anderson had originally wanted to build in Janesville, another community where she owns rental properties, but changed her mind after city officials said the project required a pitched roof, which, she said, would have added another $18,000.
Follow-up emails sent by MODS International state that structural engineering drawings and calculations for the Anderson project, as prepared by Appleton-based Triumph Engineering, were submitted to Milton officials on July 29.
Buten Street resident Dale Blaser said he thought Anderson’s building plan, coupled with a rumor he’d heard suggesting Anderson might buy and build a second container home on an adjoining lot, was indicative of a change in the look and feel of the neighborhood.
“Now if that doesn’t say, ‘I’m building cheap homes to rent out,’ then I don’t know what it says,” Blaser said.
He was not alone, with one attendee saying: “I don’t know what kind of person it would draw into the community.”
Another asked: “Who do you think will want to rent this?”
Blaser started an online petition “Stop the building of container houses.”
He and his wife, Stephanie, live across the street from Anderson’s lot. Both cited a Buten Street “Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions,” mandating dwellings in their neighborhood have a pitched roof and siding.
Dale Blaser said he had concerns after speaking with a real estate agent that told him a project like Anderson’s could bring neighboring property values down by as much as $15,000 to $20,000.
Attendee Fred Hookham, citing 14 years of experience as a real estate agent, supported the possibility, calling such suppositions, “common sense.”
As the discussion developed, some residents in attendance became very vocal, prompting Welch to call for more order, saying she otherwise would end the meeting.
“Our homes are worth $160,000 and you want to put something worth $40,000 on our street,” a resident said.
Another said: “It’s not an appropriate place, it’s not right for a residential subdivision. Now, if I had land out in the country, yeah, I’d put something like that on it.”
Anderson said: “You mentioned you thought the house is worth $40,000, I purchased the lot for $15,000 and I have $89,000 into the house so far.”
Discussion also revolved around defining the unit, with an attendee asking: “So, it’s a trailer?”
Larson responded: “With some models, we can pick it up and move it, but it does not have wheels on it.”
Trailers, by definition must have wheels and axels, he said.
“So, you have something to me that looks like a trailer, but you’re calling it a mobile home?” the resident asked.
“Not this one; it’s welded to a foundation,” Larson said.
Addressing Anderson, a resident said: “I don’t want to lose $15,000-$20,000 of my property value because you want to build a rental home.”
Another resident said: “It’s the aesthetics and the neighborhood. It doesn’t fit the area. Build a subdivision of them where they belong. It doesn’t belong in a stick-built neighborhood.”
“I’m sorry this has gone this far,” Anderson said. “I love these houses; these houses are great. I will do what I can to soften the look of the house with a garden. This is an affordable house. Think of all the families that are still split up because of the economy, families, where someone had to leave for work after the General Motors plant closed, that was one of my intentions for this. I’m sorry this is upsetting you so much.
“If you or the city wants to buy my lot from me, I’ll build somewhere else. I came here because that’s where my opportunity was,” Anderson said.
One resident asked his neighbors if they would be willing to chip in $1,000 each to buy back the lot. No one in the room responded except Welch, saying, with humor, she was not in a position to broker a deal.
Attendees further admonished MODS representatives and Anderson for building products in which they themselves did not live. Larson said he lived in “a nice house on the river,” and Anderson said she already had a home. While she had intended to rent the container home, she said last week Wednesday she thought she might sell it instead.