GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids company that gives old shipping containers new life as pools, homes and other living concepts is expanding.
Blox CEO Chris Van Doeselaar expects to open the business’ first showroom in early August. The roughly 3,000-square-foot space will host a rotating display of repurposed container creations, from hunting cabins to cocktail pools. Each one is built at Blox, which Van Doeselaar believes is the only manufacturer of its kind in West Michigan.
“There’s not a lot to look at out there to compare to, so we find that it’s really helpful for our customers to see finished pieces and help them to understand what is it like to stand in the container. How big is it? How wide is it? What does it feel like? And so by being able to provide that, it helps them kind of feel good about what decisions they’re making,” Van Doeselaar said.
Blox’s 7,000-square-foot expansion includes a conference room and nine new offices built out of shipping containers. Crews started construction on the addition last month.
It will complement Blox’s current two-story office space filled with repurposed shipping containers with a variety of finishes and features, including a deck, coffee bar, sliding doors and circular windows trimmed in rebar.
“I wanted this to be a working showroom and show off both our container capability and our millwork capability, so we created this design,” Van Doeselaar said.
“There are no offices around like that,” he added.
Blox also recently expanded its fabrication floor to accommodate growing demand.
“It just increases every day,” Van Doeselaar said.
Van Doeselaar is also the CEO of Newco Design Build. He said he researched shipping containers for years before repurposing his first one seven or eight years ago.
“I really like the thought of taking something that was thought to be (at) the end of (its) life and then cleaning it up and putting it into a whole new design. It’s now being used as something totally different. They’re so structurally sound, they have so much additional life left in them, the thought of just scrapping them or tearing them apart seems very wasteful. … If we can use these in something else and create something else at a less expensive price and allow people to enjoy it, it seemed like a really good idea,” he said.
Three years ago, Van Doeselaar decided to spin off the concept from Newco to help build Blox’s name in the niche industry. Since then, Blox has repurposed more than 50 shipping containers, creating rock climbing walls, houses, commercial bars, buildings concession stands, hunting cabins “and kind of everything in between,” according to Van Doeselaar.
Blox even designed a $30,000 hunting cabin with a kitchen, bathroom and foldout couch. Stairs leading to the bunk bed double as drawers for storage. The wall where the TV hangs swings out for people to watch outside while grilling or enjoying a campfire. Van Doeselaar said Blox sold an off-grid version of the hunting cabin to professional skateboarder Josh Kalis, but it has broad appeal.
“This works well for those who have maybe property up north, have no place to stay when they go, they’ve been pulling a fifth-wheel trailer for a long time, but those rot out in the woods, they just cannot take that constant abuse of the woods and the outdoor exposure, where this can. This can sit here for as long as it needs to, and you just come here, open the door and it’ll be just like this every time you come,” said Van Doeselaar, who added that Blox can install flip-up steel window covers for owners concerned about bears or vandalism.
DIPPING INTO POOLS
Van Doeselaar said Blox’s most creative endeavor so far is pools, which the company recently rolled out at a home show.
“(It’s) quite a bit different than normal, ‘cause you’re cutting it down quite a bit. It just really transforms a shipping container into something totally different,” he said.
Blox’s pools can hold about 5,000 gallons of water, reaching a depth just shy of 48 inches. Van Doeselaar says they’ve already finished several pools and have two to three more in the works.
“The demand is just starting to increase now that the warm weather has happened. We’ve had a lot of inquiries about the pool,” he said.
CONTAINER HOUSING: LESS COSTLY?
Van Doeselaar said the highest interest is in housing.
“It’s not for everyone, but those who like a little bit more modern industrial architecture, it allows you to create that at much less price than you would in traditional. We are able to cantilever our product quite readily. We are able to create rooftop decks. We are able to create really nice patios and overlooks that are much more difficult with traditional construction. The product is very safe and sound if you’re in high wind areas, tornado areas, properly tied to the ground, which is the whole purpose of them, they’re very safe. They can be very durable for the long term,” Van Doeselaar said.
He said the structure’s foundation can be built while his team is modifying the container, saving time. While the design phase is similar to a traditional house, the construction period for container homes is roughly four to five months, depending on the size.
“The bigger the house, the longer it takes. If we did a one- or two-container house, that can be done in eight weeks,” he said.
A shipping container home may also save money by using less lumber in construction and less energy when finished. Blox uses closed-cell spray foam and low-emissivity glass.
“The insulation is quite a bit better. We do not have any air gaps in our containers… our studs actually sit free of the inside of the container so we don’t have a lot of thermal transfer. So we’re able to control the environment inside the house very, very well,” Van Doeselaar explained.
Van Doeselaar, who has previous experience in commercial and home building, estimates energy bills to be about 20% lower than a traditional home and construction costs about 15% to 20% less than typical houses. However, he cautioned pricing varies wildly depending on the repurposed containers’ architectural complexity (think decks and cantilevered floors) and finishes.
GROWING FROM GRAND RAPIDS
Blox has faced some challenges. Van Doeselaar said during the pandemic when ports were jammed, it was “quite difficult” to find shipping containers to buy, but that problem is easing. Van Doeselaar said the top obstacle now is clearing up misconceptions by local municipalities.
“There’s a fear that we’re just putting out rusty, nasty boxes and that’s what people are living in, and that’s what people will have in their neighborhood or their community. So trying to get them to understand that that’s not the finished product, that there’s a whole design scheme that goes with it… and that we are following all of the local building codes. We have structural engineering review it. So we’re meeting all the necessary codes and we’re providing aesthetically pleasing design. It’s just kind of getting them to understand that part of it,” he said.
As repurposed containers gain traction, Blox’s reach grows. Van Doeselaar expected the company’s project load to increase 50% this year over last year. Blox has three pending projects that would take the company out of Michigan for the first time, in addition to projects in Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Rose City and Benton Harbor. Employees at Blox are currently finishing a gym for glamping in South Haven.
“It’s a really fun place to come and look at different ideas. Basically both showroom and offices is kind of like a walking idea center. We’ve had most people come through and it’s like, ‘I never would’ve thought of that, now my mind is racing. I’m thinking about this, I’m thinking about that.’ And so it’s a place to kind of spark your imagination of what you could use them for,” Van Doeselaar said.