New apartment complex in Salt Lake City made from shipping containers is scheduled to open in early 2023

The developer behind an innovative Salt Lake City home made from recycled shipping containers says the Box 500 project “has a bright future.”

Work on the experiment to stack containers six stories high in a Lego-like fashion to create low-cost housing began in early 2020 after two years of discussions with the city, but its completion has been repeatedly delayed due to supply chain issues and concerns from building inspectors.

Rod Newman, owner of Eco Box Fabricators and key driver of the project, recently said that the compact metal complex and its 84 affordable units at 543 S. 500 West are more than 90% complete, despite being almost a year or more behind schedule .

Expected to open to renters in the early months of next year, Box 500 Apartments will offer apartments at rents well below the city’s market rates, with studio, one- and two-bedroom units ranging from $829 to $1,204 each month cost.

“I’m excited,” Newman said, “for the future of this project.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Box 500 Apartments at 543 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, photographed while under early construction on May 27, 2021.

While discarded shipping containers were used in Utah’s capital to build smaller homes and offices, including a variety of side apartments, Box 500 Apartments is a first foray into six-story cargotecture.

In fact, according to Newman, it could be among the tallest buildings in the world made from the ubiquitous metal crates used to ship goods around the world.

And its impact, he said, extends well beyond a project.

Despite significant cost overruns and numerous administrative issues, the developer has said Box 500 Apartments has developed a robust model for similar construction at lower elevations that could help meet Utah’s urgent need for more affordable homes.

He said his Salt Lake City-based company has already applied to participate in several other developments, including a new vision for the redevelopment of the city’s fleet block, located between 300 West and 400 West from 800 South to 900 South.

“Our weak point right now is four floors and below,” Newman said. “You don’t need elevators and all the other things that slow you down and aren’t cost effective for affordable housing.”

Breakdowns due to delivery bottlenecks, safety concerns

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inside view of the Box 500 Apartments at 543 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, still under construction as of May 2021.

Orion Goff, deputy director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, said the city worked diligently to ensure the Box 500 Apartments met fire safety, seismic and other standards before and during construction.

“Because this particular design has never been attempted elsewhere,” Goff said, “there were many unique challenges, both structural and fire safety and life safety.

“We believe the effort to bring this unique project to market is replicable,” he added. “The design certainly provides a very earthquake and wind resistant structure.”

Addressing fire issues in the building’s design, including the building’s exits and its sprinkler system, was part of what initially slowed the granting of planning permission for the project, city officials said at the time.

The city also waived residential impact fees, according to Newman, as part of creating housing affordable for those earning 60% of the region’s median income.

Records indicate that inspectors intervened several times over the past year as construction work progressed, necessitating less flammable alternatives to flooring and cladding used in the stair and elevator system.

Inspectors rejected a laminated material and some type of plank the crews used to fasten the structure’s roof, Newman said. “Actually, I had to take the whole roof off and redo it.”

Multiple city concerns resulted in months of delays and increased costs, Newman said, exacerbated by intermittent problems getting critical materials to the site as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted utility lines, including the elevator.

Prices for shipping containers themselves also became volatile during the worst of the global supply crisis, Newman added, although they’ve since “leveled back out at around $6,000.”

Remodeling of some apartments before opening

Although he praised the city for working together to ensure safety, Newman said concerns about fire have been overdone, largely because of the impenetrability of the shipping containers themselves.

“If you have a fire on that outside,” he said, “it won’t get inside.”

“You’re not going to have a fire at the Sugar House,” Newman said, referring to the October fire that decimated The Residences at Sugar Alley, 2188 S. Highland Drive, as crews neared completion of the 186-unit apartment complex Heart of the East Quarter.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Box 500 apartment building seen on Tuesday December 6, 2022. The developer behind the project said it is now scheduled to open in early 2023.

Although Box 500 is almost complete, Eco Box Fabricators recently submitted a new round of design changes for some of the building’s apartments for city approval. These changes, Newman said, “will better serve Salt Lake’s low-income population” by downsizing some of the one-bedroom apartments to create more units.

“We didn’t see the demand for smaller units, otherwise I would have done it very differently,” he said of Box 500’s living spaces, with studio apartments at 320 square feet and one- and two-bedroom rentals averaging 640 square feet.

Recent floor plan changes, Newman said, “are going to be very basic,” and the project remains on track to open by spring.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. New apartment complex in Salt Lake City made from shipping containers is scheduled to open in early 2023

Justin Scacco

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