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Still playing with the box

Anna and Sven Pirkl wanted a house built around their eclectic, athletic lives. What they are getting may be a blueprint for future unconventional homes that just might rock suburbia.

July 13, 2006|Dexter Ford | Special to The Times

AT first glance, it looks like a mix-up on the docks of San Pedro. Eight shipping containers -- those orange-, green- and rust-colored boxes that truckers haul on L.A. freeways -- sit stacked two high at different angles on a lot in Redondo Beach. The steel containers, now painted white, have windows, door openings and some entire sides cut out. But there's no disguising their cargo-carrying heritage.

They make up different wings of a contemporary-style house that will have a 20-foot-high living room and two walls of airplane-hangar doors that will open completely to the outdoors.

"We wanted something different." says Anna Pirkl, a 34-year-old artist, who is building the house with her husband, Sven, 37. "We wanted something contemporary and modern. But it was getting more and more expensive to do what we wanted to do."

The structure is eye-catching in its oddity, a standout in a suburban neighborhood of single-story tract houses and recently remodeled two-story homes. By using containers for much of their house, the Pirkls say they are saving a bundle.

Dozens of architects have explored using the strong, weatherproof, steel containers to create inexpensive, environmentally responsible housing. Container-based dwellings have been an option for at least a decade, and have turned up as youth hostels in South Africa, field hospitals in Jamaica, art studios in London and dormitories in Amsterdam.

In the United States, a handful of completed projects include a few highly original container-based residences in New Jersey and New England by Adam Kalkin, an off-beat architect and performance artist. In architecturally adventurous Southern California, Jennifer Siegal designed the SeaTrain House in an industrial area of downtown L.A. using containers as part of the structure.

For Anna and Sven, the container idea started as a joke.

ABOUT eight years ago, the couple saw a lot for sale but they only had money to buy the lot.

"So I joked with Sven," says Anna, " 'We should just go down to Long Beach, grab a couple of those shipping containers, weld 'em together, put in a few windows' ... I was just kidding. With building prices the way they were -- and are -- we just couldn't find a way to build the house we wanted."

After they acquired the Redondo Beach property, she checked prefab houses on the Web. "I contacted all kinds of metal companies, to see if they wanted to do something new and cool on our lot. But nothing was really clicking."

Then the couple was introduced to Manhattan Beach architect Peter DeMaria, unaware that he too had been interested in containers.

"We didn't mention anything about containers," Anna says, "but we told him we wanted to be as environmentally sound as possible, to do any recycling we could. We wanted our house to be low maintenance. We wanted it to be as creative as possible. And it had to fit our budget."

Early in the architect's pitch a couple of weeks later, the Pirkls figured out that he was suggesting containers. "And we said, 'Fine.'

"I think Peter was a little disappointed that we said yes so fast -- he'd worked hard to create this great, elaborate show, and he didn't even get to finish it."

"Beyond using the containers," says the irrepressible Anna, "we have a number of things we're doing inside the house that are going to be a lot of fun. Like this," she says, pointing to an interior side wall of the 20-foot-high living room where there will be a climbing wall.

"Sven and I are sports fanatics. We're going to put a zip line --a tight steel cable -- down a hallway, so you can reach up, grab the handles, and ride to the next room. We'll probably also put in some swings, some gymnastic rings. Those are the kinds of things we like to do. We figured, why wait 'til you go to the gym or go off on a weekend or a vacation to do that sort of thing?"

"THERE are certain expected activities that take place in a standard house," says architect DeMaria. "But this house is a more interactive experience than any other I've been involved with. The house enables Anna and Sven to do the things that are unique to them: hang on that zip line, climb that wall, ride their mountain bikes up the front ramp and through the wide-open living room, in one side and out the other.

"Stylistically, we had no preconceived view of what the building should look like," DeMaria says. "We knew we wanted it to function for them. We started to arrange things to support what they wanted to do. I'd like to think that the building reflects them, and the way they like to live ... At one point we were going to put a half-pipe in the back yard."

Four of the largest containers sit perpendicular to the street above a concrete garage, two stacked on the right, two on the left. The lower boxes will serve as hallways and open-air porches, the upper one on the left will be the master bath and walk-in closet, the one on the upper right will house a library-guestroom.

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