Is this house super cool or just plain ugly? St. Charles residents are of two minds | St. Louis Public Radio

Is this house super cool or just plain ugly? St. Charles residents are of two minds

Jul 1, 2016

Updated with St. Charles City Council vote July 6, 2016, 12:51pm - An unusual house made of railroad-shipping containers is going up on Elm Street in St. Charles. But if city officials have their way, the nearly-finished place could be the last of its kind in the city’s traditional neighborhoods.

St. Charles residents Zack and Brie Smithey began working on their two-story home in May. Their house is being made from eight red containers, doubled stacked and four across. It sits on a sloping lot between a split-level and a ranch.

But their choice of building materials has raised red flags in St. Charles. The metal structure isn’t appropriate in areas with brick and sided houses, said Bruce Evans, the city's director of community development. “It’s jarring. It’s not the kind of difference I think most folks want in the property around theirs," Evans said. “It’s just so different.”

The St. Charles City Council defeated a proposal Tuesday night that would have banned residents from building shipping-container houses in those areas, but the council could revise the ordinance or create a new one.

Grandpa helped build The Arch

The home is being built by Zach Smithey, 33, an artist and a former high-school art teacher. He bought the Elm Street lot years ago and brainstormed a number of other ideas that didn’t work out, including a concrete home and an earth house.

Then, online images of shipping container homes, including one in Kansas City, caught his eye. He decided to wing it, learning as he went along.

Smithey removed the first floor walls except for a partial one designed to separate the kitchen and family room area from an office space.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

“Actually, I’m kind of treating this like a giant sculpture. I have basic ideas about how it’s going to look when it’s done,” Smithey said. “You go in with general idea and once you start tearing into it, then the real ideas come out.”

He’s cut out most of the 14-gauge steel inside walls, giving an open feel to the 3,000-square-foot building.

His dad Steve Smithey, a retired iron worker, is often there to help but not in a hands-on role.

“[I] mostly just point, and let the boy do it,” Steve Smithey said.

Zack Smithey's dad Steve Smithey said he couldn't be prouder of his son's art and this house project.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Turns out, building things is a family legacy.

“My Dad worked on The Arch,” the elder Smithey said. “He did the welding on the stainless steel.”

Fifty years later, the son of The Arch builder helps his own son use a cutter torch to trim steel straps that hold the containers together. Hardly anything goes to waste. Zack Smithey plans to use steel from the interior walls as fencing.

Zack Smithey removes a few inches from metal straps that help keep the containers attached to each other.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Most of the materials are recycled — including the shipping containers, which cost $2,000 each — and the windows and fireplace mantels.

But Smithy doesn’t store much of that stuff at home but in his 10,000-square-foot art studio.

“I’m allowed to horde at my studio, but not our houses," he said.

And who made that rule?

“My wife, Brie,” Smithey said.

Brie and Zack Smithey check out the progress of the interior. Brie Smithey runs the couple's St. Charles restaurant called Miss Aimee B's.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Brie Smithey, 31, said the couple has a policy about differences of opinion.

“If we both don’t agree, it doesn’t happen, and we’ll compromise to make it happen,” she said.

The Smitheys have been together 15 years, since their days at St. Charles High School, and married for six.

This is the fourth house the couple has rehabbed or built, so they’ve had plenty of opportunities to navigate their relationship during stressful times. But that doesn’t mean they’re always on the same page.

“Zach has problem with wanting to go big fast,” Brie Smithey said. “And I’m the more practical one that takes it down a couple of notches and says, ‘OK, we’re never home, we don’t need all this space.’”

‘Horrendous’ or hip?

The Smithey's container home sits in between a ranch and a split-level home. This view is of the back of the house. The Smitheys hope to build a container in-ground pool one day where the aluminum pieces lie on the ground.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

The Smitheys both think the container house is just the right size — and the right price: $125,000 for the building and the land. But what do the neighbors think?

“I think one neighbor called it horrendous,” Brie Smithey said.

The house has some admirers, though.

People just have to get used to it, mail carrier Debbie Reiling said.

“I think everyone, maybe, perhaps, is pre-judging it,” Reiling said. “But … I’ve seen some online that look very nice when they’re done.”

Local jogger Kathleen Reineke doesn’t need to wait until it’s finished to know what she thinks.

“It’s a great idea because I love recycling. That’s what I tell my kids to do all the time,” Reineke said. “So to recycle a whole house is wonderful.”

Roofers installed a new flat roof on the container house. Almost every other material is recycled, including the containers and windows.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Smithey dreams of building more such homes, perhaps as a way to help revitalize the city of St. Louis.

His container home house poses no special challenges regarding compliance, according to St. Charles code enforcement officer Mike Antram. Although Antram acknowledged the house is controversial, he said a lot of people like it. For them, the word “different" has a positive ring.

“It’s an interesting project. It’s something different here for the city of St. Charles,” people have told him.

The council's vote on the proposed ordinance won’t affect the Smitheys' house, which they plan to paint a taupe color. They hope to move into with their two dogs in September.

Zack Smithey says he not concerned what people think.

“It wouldn’t bother me if nobody liked it; it’s my house,” he said.

Street view of the container house on Elm Street in St. Charles. Steve and Zack Smithey are standing in front.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio


Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Original story posted on July 1, 2016.