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Proposal would regulate St. Charles shipping-container homes. Would it also prevent them?

A proposed amendment to St. Charles' building codes would make shipping-container homes blend in with more typical houses in the city.

A new home on Elm Street sparked the debate that led to the regulations, introduced at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. The amendment would require shipping-container homes to be fully sided and have a pitched roof.

St. Charles City Council member David Beckering said the new rules are not designed to ban such houses. City officials simply want them to be compatible with their neighbors. 

“We’re not against container homes; we’re not against recycling,” Beckering said. “We just feel like they should be regulated in some way, shape or form, just like all other homes are.”

Trying to have it both ways?

The proposed changes won’t affect Zack and Brie Smithey’s St. Charles home, made of recycled railroad containers.

The Smitheys began construction earlier this year. Now, the front is brick; the other sides are the original steel walls, painted gray. The roof is flat.

Putting siding on all exterior surfaces and adding a pitched roof would have increased the cost of the home by up to $50,000, said Zack Smithey, a professional artist and builder.  As it was, the entire project — including the land — only cost $125,000.

“It defeats the purpose of it in a few different ways,” Smithey said of the new requirement. “Both in aesthetics and cost-efficiency.”

The interior of the Smithey's home made of eight railroad shipping containers.
Credit Zack Smithey
The interior of the Smithey's home, made of eight railroad shipping containers.

This past July, the City Council voted down an outright ban on container homes in traditional neighborhoods 

Zack Smithey said the proposed regulations would have nearly the same effect.

“They’re just trying to discourage it enough to where they really don’t have to deal with it, but they can tell people they didn’t ban shipping-container homes,” Smithey said. “They’re trying to have it both ways.”

Zack and Brie Smithey in front of their shipping-container home under construction in July 2016
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Zack and Brie Smithey in front of their shipping-container home under construction in July 2016.

Under the proposed regulations, container homes would be designated as conditional-use buildings. That means each prospective home-builder would have to petition the Planning and Zoning Commission and then the City Council for a permit. That process takes up to 60 days, and is not required for non-container homes.

The public can weigh in at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Nov. 21. No regulations would take effect until mid-December at the earliest, according to Beckering.

Beckering said he wouldn’t mind seeing more container homes built in St. Charles, as long as they conform to the proposed amendment.

“I’ve seen some beautiful ones on the internet; unfortunately [Smithey’s] doesn’t look like that,” Beckering said.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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