Newco’s shipping container build-outs can be stacked on top of each other to save space. Courtesy Newco Design Build
Shipping container build-outs aren’t just for off-grid tiny homes anymore, and local general contractor Newco Design Build, besides making a name for itself in shipping container construction, also is practicing what it preaches.
The company recently has moved to a new location at 4131 Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Blvd. SE, Grand Rapids, and many of the offices are made from shipping containers. The warehouse-style building features six 20-foot containers stacked like Legos, offering an interesting and space-maximizing layout.
While Newco Design Build has been around chiefly as a general contractor since 2010, the company early on got interested in containers as a building medium and developed an entire container modification and fabrication division under the name Blox.
Brothers Chris Van Doeselaar, president of Newco, and Craig Van Doeselaar, vice president and director of operations, started getting into shipping container builds in 2011 mainly to set themselves apart from other builders in the area.
“By that time, it was being done in Europe and Asia,” Chris Van Doeselaar said. “I really fell in love with it and said, ‘This is awesome. This is a very unique reuse of old, retired containers.’”
Newco began by experimenting with the capabilities of the containers and meeting with vendors about providing standard products like doors and windows.
The company initially wanted any commercially available product to be used in conjunction with the containers, without violating the maker’s warranty, as opposed to having to hunt for a specialty version. Additionally, it meant any broken parts, like windows or doors, could be easily replaced.
“We went so far as to talk to window manufacturers about, ‘Would you warranty this product using our methodology for the install?’” Craig Van Doeselaar said. “So we had a couple come through and say, ‘Hey, if that’s how you’re doing the install, then yes we would warranty our product that you did not violate the install methodology.’”
Because Newco is a design/build contractor, the company has an architect on staff to come up with new, creative and cost-effective concepts.
“Early on, we were looking at small things, like instead of a traditional dugout, why don’t we use a shipping container and create a dugout out of it?” Chris Van Doeselaar said.
Shipping containers also come with the benefit of being prefabricated off-site and brought in later once they are needed. Chris Van Doeselaar said this comes in handy when building pedestrian bridges.
“A lot of times, those are built over wetlands, and you end up destroying the area you’re working in. Then you finish, and you have to restore the area you’re working in,” he said. “This is something that can be done off-site, brought in, and within one day, it’s set in place and you’re gone.”
As the container side of the business grew, Newco started to apply it to commercial construction. Around 2015, the West Michigan market began to warm up to the concept after seeing them occur more often along the coasts of the U.S.
Newco has completed a number of container projects in West Michigan and also is partnering with Family Promise of Grand Rapids and Community Action of Allegan County to help tackle affordable housing in the area.
One of the company’s more fun projects was a climbing wall for Camp Blodgett made from a 40-foot container with three sides for three different skill levels and a ladder leading up to a zip line on the fourth side.
The container also allows the camp to store all of its equipment.
The company also does “pop-up retail” for the city of Battle Creek, using seven containers configured for different retail use, like coffee and clothing shops on an unused parking lot.
“(Battle Creek’s) goal was to bring more people downtown after hours,” Chris Van Doeselaar said, “kind of like a street market, but instead of tents, they would have their own container, and they would be there from, like, April to October, so they charged them minimal rent to get people down there to shop.”
Newco has done two containers for ArtPrize’s VIP info booth, a small retail booth at races for Gazelle Sports and is currently building a shipping container house on the lakeshore near Whitehall.
And of course, the shipping containers have made it in as part of Newco’s own office. To keep up with the continued growth of the general contracting side of the business and increase its fabrication capabilities, Newco moved out of its old, 8,000-square-foot office on 3685 Hagen Drive SE to 19,000 square feet of space in its current location.
“In the process, we wanted a working showroom,” Chris Van Doeselaar said. “One of the things we experienced with the containers is we can do tons of renderings and 3Ds, but it doesn’t take the place of actually touching and feeling it.”
For cost benefits, Chris Van Doeselaar said it depends on whether or not there is an advantage to using a container. A 1,200-square-foot ranch house, for example, can’t be simplified much further. Comparatively, a unique build like Newco’s office could be achieved at a fraction of the cost.
“We stacked them and did two stories,” Chris Van Doeselaar said. “If you tried to do that on conventional framing, it would have cost me probably 30 percent more because I would have had to build a floor system and all of that, but by using the containers, I save that money.”
“The concept of what we did is to convince people you could rent giant empty warehouse space, and we can come in and double or triple stack these things in there so you have a smaller footprint, but you can go higher, and you could utilize what most people think is not useful for office,” Craig Van Doeselaar added. “That’s where we’re going to beat everybody.”
Container builds also can be moved to different locations and tend to be more durable and safer than traditional builds. Newco is talking with several camps about building cabins out of containers.
“If a tree comes down, it’s not going into the cabin,” Chris Van Doeselaar said. “The container’s going to hold up.”
There are still plenty of times when traditional construction is the best option, and although Christ Van Doeselaar said he expects it to shift in the future, about 90 percent of Newco’s work still is in traditional builds.
“I suspect that will grow over the next couple years fairly well, now that we have a place to show the product,” he said. “We got some projects where we may blend containers with traditional construction.”