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Couple Builds Home Out of Shipping Containers in Williamsburg

By Ben Fractenberg | March 1, 2013 7:51am | Updated on March 1, 2013 2:25pm

WILLIAMSBURG — David Boyle and his wife Michele Bertomen were worried they would never be able to afford to build their own home in Brooklyn.

The couple bought a 20-by-40-foot piece of land at 351 Keap St. in 2008, trying to get ahead of the wave of gentrification they feared would soon price them out of Williamsburg. Initially, they planned to build a tiny home out of bricks and mortar, but when they put out a bid, it came back as potentially costing half a million dollars.

"We were just sitting around one night, bottle of wine, just feeling like we couldn't do it," said Boyle, a 55-year-old contractor whose wife is an architect. "And then just, 'How about shipping containers?' came up. So Michele just sat down and did the calculations, in the terms of the size, fire ratings, how you can stack them up… And she said it would work."

 Contractor David Boyle and his architect wife, Michele Bertomen, built a home at 351 Keap St. out of three shipping containers, Jan. 28, 2013.
Contractor David Boyle and his architect wife, Michele Bertomen, built a home at 351 Keap St. out of three shipping containers, Jan. 28, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

The couple, who have been together for about 20 years, bought six shipping containers at $1,500 apiece and began work on what they believe is the first private residence in the city made out of shipping containers.

They worked on the design, which has the three containers stacked on top of each other with a stairwell connecting them in the middle, and erected the nearly 1,600-square-foot structure in late 2009 in about three hours.

"If you went to work in the morning, there was no building," Boyle said. "You came back for lunch, there was a building and it was three stories tall."

Renovations were progressing when the couple got a call from the real estate blog Curbed. A reporter had seen the building in passing.

"They said they wanted to do a little story on us," Boyle said.

Curbed ran a short story on Jan. 12, 2010. Three days later, a stop-work order was issued by the Department of Buildings, according to its website.

Among the department's complaints, Boyle said, was that their backyard was not large enough to count as open space. The space did not count as a yard either, so Boyle and Bertomen would have to cut off part of their home to make extra room to fulfill the DOB requirements.

The couple then had to meet with the department for 20 minutes every two weeks to go over the plans. 

"Every time was a little change in the set of plans and only [because] Michele was an architect could we do it," said Boyle. "Because if you had to pay those professional fees for eight months, and every time is a new plan, it would break anybody."

After nearly eight months of back and forth, the couple worried their home would never be built. They turned to help from former DOB Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Ron Livian.

"He said, 'Let's just come up with a list now, a final list, of what needs to be done. Michele will draw up the plan, she'll bring it in and we can agree that is it, and lift the stop-work order,'" Boyle recalled. "Two weeks later it was lifted.'"

Livian, who now works for a consulting firm that helps people with zoning issues, said while he doesn't think the approval process will get any easier, he believes the home will act as a case study for future shipping-container houses.

"We see many of the clients are looking at this. It is the wave of the future," Livian said. "It's similar to pre-fabricated houses. It is both ease and speed of construction."

After the delay — which Boyle said added an extra $100,000 to the project because of interest paid on their building loan — the whole project ended up costing them $400,000.

After the stop-work order was rescinded in August, construction was completed in the fall of 2012, and the couple got their official approval to live in the structure in January.

Their final certificate of occupancy was approved on Feb. 28, Boyle added.

The home features many innovative designs. The container walls are insulated with Super Therm, a paint with ceramic particles that Boyle describes as being like ground-up space shuttle tiles. It traps heat and blocks the sun's rays, too.

The house is heated via radiant heat, with pipes running heated water through the concrete floors.

The couple hopes the new home will be more than just a place to live, but will also benefit the community. They plan to use a guest room on the first floor as temporary housing for visiting scholars and musicians. 

And eventually Boyle and Bertomen say they will run a nonprofit out of the space, working on quality-of-life issues in Williamsburg.

"They're proud too," said Boyle of his neighbors. "It's an interesting project and it's in their neighborhood."