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There’s a rumor floating around in the design universe that building a home out of shipping containers—those massive, corrugated-steel boxes that stack like building blocks on cargo ships and freight-train cars—is an easy and inexpensive alternative to constructing a traditional wood-frame house. Not so, says architect Joe Simmons, principal of BlueSky Studio, who got his first taste of the alternative building method when he helped husband and wife Regan and Libby Foster build a new home, comprising nine 40-foot-long containers, in Chaffee Park.
“Because shipping containers have such great structural integrity, they’re very easy to build with—except for the fact that they’re only 8 feet wide and all steel, so you have to insulate them,” Simmons says. “By the time you put insulation on the inside, you end up with a room that’s 7 feet wide.” Removing a wall here and there creates more space, but requires some major steel reinforcements and intricate engineering, not to mention a few good tools. “Tom Sprung [whose firm Sprung Construction built the RiNo mixed-use development 2500 Larimer using 29 shipping containers] warned me that he spent $50,000 on saw blades!” Simmons says.
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But such constraints didn’t stop the Fosters, for whom taking on big design challenges has become a way of life. Regan, a builder and former firefighter, had already tackled the remodel of the couple’s previous house—and has since completed the gut renovation of the Dove Inn, an 1866 Victorian house-turned-boutique-hotel in Golden, which the Fosters own and operate—not to mention the countless furnishings he’s built from humble materials most designers would overlook.
As for Simmons, any misgivings he had were quickly swept away by the sheer force of Regan’s energy, drive, and unique vision for the project: “Regan was interested in creating a kind of community in which two or three families could live together in the same big space, which was the real interesting and satisfying design challenge here,” the architect explains. “It was more than just a technical exercise.” (Though only Libby’s mom lives with the Fosters at the moment, Regan says the family is open to welcoming others.)
To create the unusual design, Simmons first made a set of small wooden blocks to scale, then started “stacking them up in not-so-obvious ways,” he says. Eventually, he arrived at a 4,000-square-foot structure comprising two matching two-container stacks on each side and one raised container spanning the empty space in the middle. The flexible floorplan includes an open living, dining, and cooking area on the main floor, plus a two-bedroom suite, a music room, and media room. Upstairs is a two-bedroom apartment where Libby’s mom lives, as well as a master suite, and two more bedrooms and baths.
Tall, south-facing windows and a band of clerestory windows—key elements of a passive-solar design that keeps the rooms toasty on winter days—fill the shared living spaces with natural light. When the weather cooperates, the Fosters can open the front door and the 20-foot-wide sliding glass panels that connect the living areas to a rear patio, making the interiors “feel like a breezeway,” Regan says.
To soften the interiors—which showcase more than 100,000 pounds of steel that Regan helped fabricate into support beams, staircase railings, and even a custom kitchen hood—the Fosters added wood accents and bold paint colors: emerald-green inside and vibrant turquoise outside. And though the Fosters are self-described minimalists when it comes to ornamentation, their kitchen’s eclectic finishes reveal that they still like to have some fun. For that hardworking space, they chose cabinetry in two finishes—dark wood and glossy white—and three countertop materials: soapstone on the 14-foot-long island, white quartz to the left of the stove, and copper to its right. “It’s a mix of design and function, finding the best deal, and using whatever we have laying around,” Regan says of their approach. “And maybe a little bit of luck, too.”
The same goes for the couple’s furnishings, an assortment of big-box-store basics, family hand-me-downs, and designs that Regan handcrafted to highlight some of his favorite salvaged finds. Their dining table, for example, is made from weathered wood beams Regan reclaimed from an abandoned RiNo bridge. The chandelier above it flaunts exposed cords that attach to the metal top of an old grain silo. And for patio seating, Regan encased chunks of concrete foundation from the site’s original house in welded-steel cages, which he topped with planks of pine and walnut.
“Ever since our first house, every project we’ve taken on has been done on a low budget, so we’ve had to be extremely resourceful in how we design and source stuff,” Regan says of their D.I.Y. mentality. “But we don’t skimp on quality to save money, and not everything has to be functional.” Some things—like a house made of steel—“can just be for the sake of design.”
Architecture: Joe Simmons, BlueSky Studio
Construction and interior design: Regan and Libby Foster, Foster Design