Sterling Cox is a 36-year-old merchant mariner who was inspired to turn shipping containers into small homes during his time working on cargo ships. “As long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed little houses, little apartments. I thought they were really cool.”
After doing some market research, he found there weren’t many other companies out there making homes out of shipping containers. Together with friends Travis Tench and Faruk Vakufac, he set out to build a home within a shipping container. The result was the prototype dwelling of Southworth Living Spaces. The prototype was featured in One Spark 2014 and 2015.
The prototype dwelling is a 20-foot shipping container with 155 square feet of living space inside. It contains a full bathroom with shower, queen size loft bed, kitchenette, propane water heater, 120-volt hook-ups, plumbing, insulation and trailer hook-ups. The price to purchase this container home is around $24,000.
The recent growth in the “tiny homes” trend is largely due to the lower cost of ownership compared to a traditional home. Cox believes that financial independence is the biggest benefit of living in smaller spaces.
A big part of the American dream is home ownership, but for many Americans, this is not attainable. In 2016, the U.S. homeownership rate fell to historic lows, particularly among those under the age of 35. An oppressive combination of student loan debt and climbing rent rates has created an environment in which it is difficult or impossible to save for a downpayment or qualify for a mortgage. At its core, the idea of alternative living spaces can make financial independence possible.
“Another really important part of alternative living spaces is that it is empowering,” Cox said. “I truly believe that anyone can get some tools, do some research and actually build their own house. I find that really neat. Everything, all the plumbing, electrical, even the metal work, anyone can do it if they have the gumption.”
“It’s funny. We have an incredible amount of freedom in some ways, but in a lot of ways I feel that we’re not as free as we think we are, and we’re more free in other ways that we don’t realize.”
There are obstacles to building a home that don’t fit the status quo, however, including the cost of land as well as formidable permitting challenges. Most counties and municipalities have zoning restrictions and code regulations that prohibit tiny houses.
“They have a bunch of restrictions and regulations that are all there particularly for people’s safety,” Cox said. “I completely understand they don’t want someone just building a death trap and then selling it to someone. But I feel as though a lot of the restrictions are kind of clunky; they don’t take into account the greater good.”
Cox found that finding a place to put the container was almost insurmountable. “It’s been much more difficult than just building it, and I thought building it was going to be hard. Putting in windows, and plumbing and all that was difficult, it was a real learning process, but it’s been much more difficult finding a place to put it than anything else. That’s the thing that I can’t do much about. I can’t change laws, I can’t reverse code restrictions, especially in Florida. The code restrictions in Florida are a lot stricter than other places I’ve lived. That’s the other side of the freedom aspect.”
The demand for alternative housing is driving a change in the laws, but the progress has been slow. “There are a lot of municipalities that are reversing or modifying their codes and restrictions because there is becoming a greater demand for smaller living spaces,” Cox said. “I think you’re not as free to live in a small space as normal. That’s the weird thing. You’re not allowed to have houses less than 600 square feet, and that seems kind of strange. It’s funny. We have an incredible amount of freedom in some ways, but in a lot of ways I feel that we’re not as free as we think we are, and we’re more free in other ways that we don’t realize.”
It became clear to Cox that his vision of selling containers to people as a primary residence didn’t have the necessary market, but renting them as vacation cabins had huge potential. He partnered with a homeowner in Neptune Beach who allowed him to place the container on their land, and he began renting to travelers on Airbnb. Offering the use of the container home as a vacation rental was an instant success, maintaining 75 percent occupancy throughout its run. However, opposition from neighbors resulted in the operation shutting down. Because of residential codes, Cox was forced to stop renting and remove the container.
Cox said his next step will be venturing outside of Florida, and it looks like a potential site in Athens, Georgia might be on the horizon. His plan would consist of the placement of five or six cabins on a property that can be rented as vacation homes.
“I don’t feel as though we have as much freedom to live — I couldn’t just build my house anywhere,” Cox said, adding the true meaning of the American dream is more than just a house. “At the heart of all this was to do something that I loved, which is building and working with my hands, making something cool and doing it for a living.”