This business owner builds homes out of shipping containers

A three-container home by Relevant  Buildings Caleb Diehl A three-container home by Relevant Buildings

Company aims to reduce waste in the building industry. 


Carl Coffman is betting that in the near future, people will want to live in shipping containers.

After 35 years as an excavation contractor, Coffman decided he wanted to spark a conversation about climate change and natural resources. The retired contractor set up shop in Oregon City. His company, Relevant Buildings, fabricates finished homes out of recycled containers from nearby ports. He hopes to sell them for between $50,000 and $230,000.

“It’s simple if you just use these how they were designed,” he says.

IMG 3006Coffman demonstrates another way of stacking the containers. 

Coffman’s operation sits in a gravel lot just off I-205, easily recognizable by the pile of 450-foot steel containers. A model home village features containers outfitted with windows, electrical wiring, plumbing, drywall, tiling and all the other accoutrements of a modern home. They range from single-container homes to three-container creations of more than 1,000 square feet.

Coffman’s latest project in the city of St. Helens is an eight-unit shipping container condo complex. The 650-foot, one-bedroom units are stacked together like Legos, four below and four above. Coffman is leasing the land from the city.

He’s also in the early stages of a ten-unit development in Milwaukie and a 20- to 30-unit project in Roseburg.

With affordable housing in crisis across the state, planners and developers are scrambling to accommodate new homebuilding solutions. Some alternatives include encouraging “missing-middle” housing like duplexes and triplexes. Portland recently amended its code to allow accessory dwelling units — small backyard living quarters often offered at an affordable price. And of course there are tiny homes.

IMG 3004A two-story container home at the Oregon City location. 

Coffman insists his containers bring something different to the real estate market. They are not tiny homes, he says. Nor are they affordable housing, exactly. The St. Helens units will rent for around $1,200, and Coffman hopes to offer ownership options at or below that rate.

Coffman does hope to sell future developments to nonprofits. “Once we get to scale, we’ll make a dent in affordable housing,” he says.

The idea has the potential for provide housing at low cost. As with accessory dwelling units, developers can take advantage of modular construction. They can build the entire unit and ship it to the construction site, cutting down construction times and disruption to the neighborhood. The container homes also use only about an eighth of the wood in traditional light-frame U.S. homes.

Each home sits on a foundation and a thick bed of insulation. Various models feature different bumpouts for windows and doors welded to the container. The interiors are games of Tetris, with laundry machines in the bathroom or clever storage nooks. Some units even boast small porches. 

Though relatively new to the United States, container architecture has become a worldwide fad. In an era of increasing urbanization, the structures can provide quick and flexible housing. Coffman was inspired by student housing in the Netherlands—an entire dorm built of stacked shipping containers. 



With disaster resilience a frequent topic of conversation these days, Coffman says his containers are just the thing, water resistant and earthquake proof. “If you put a traditional house on a ship, stacked it seven high and sent it across the ocean, I don’t think it would do so well,” he says.

Before Coffman can scale up, however, he needs to get approved for state permits. That will require expensive testing of the homes’ structural integrity.

The entreprenueur doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of where this project will take him. So far he’s only sold two units.

He just knows he wants to shake up the traditional home building industry. “We’re trying to push back on the common way of doing things,” he says.  


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Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

1 comment

  • Beckie
    Beckie Thursday, 14 March 2019 10:12 Comment Link

    Maybe this will be the way I can move home to be with my girls. Can’t afford much else.

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