It sounds a lot like a Hallmark movie: respected business person loses home in fierce storm, faces a series of trials and tribulations but, through sheer force of will – and a lot of creativity – triumphs over adversity, gaining new perspectives and insights during the process. Throw in a subplot about container homes and you’ve pretty much got the picture.
An entrepreneur who has owned Screen Arts on King Street for more than 40 years, Rob DePiazza can best be described as an appreciator and collector of cool things including art, music…and new ideas. For years, Screen Arts did double duty as a gallery that featured artists from across the country, and introduced designs and ideas that were innovative and adventurous. Now, he’s done it again. Rob is building a container home in St. Augustine making him, at press time, the only person in St. Johns County to do so.
How Rob lost his home of 31 years is a story in itself that can be summed up in one word: Irma. Moving forward with the decision to go the non-traditional route when rebuilding wasn’t much of a stretch. “I’ve been in business for myself since I was 17 and I’ve learned to consider my choices and make informed decisions that I’m comfortable with,” says Rob. “I love the form vs. function, industrial aspect of using space, and the concept of embracing materials in their natural state. I had already started the process of creating an area for artists here in St. Augustine utilizing containers; after Irma hit, I just switched gears from commercial container use to residential container use. It was a natural progression.” Rob chose architect Stephen Bender to help with the logistics of the project.
Stephen Bender has too many credentials to list here. Most importantly, for many of us anyway, he is an avid surfer who considers St. Augustine his second home. Aside from the architect tag, Stephen also serves as a professor at UNF Gainesville and is currently working on a project in the Orlando area that focuses on viable solutions to affordable housing. He is on the Board of the Florida Housing Coalition and collaborates with organizations like Crisis Housing Solutions from Broward County and the Community Asset Preservation Corporation. He started his first container home project back in 2009, works closely with his clients, and has partnerships with fabricators across the state. “Rob is typical from the aspect of a residential container homeowner,” says Stephen. “He is considering the costs but is also interested in functionality and the innovative use of natural materials in a defined space. The basic and most common steel shipping container in our region is a 40-foot long, ‘highcube’ – 9 1/2 ft. in height from bottom to top and 8 feet wide. Rob is using 9 containers.”
With so many youtube videos and do-it-your-selfers out there, why would someone need the expertise that Stephen offers? “You can make costly mistakes from not obeying the constraints of the container and working outside the logic of the material,” he explains. “Containers are not included in the Florida building code prescriptive; an architect and engineer who has some experience is very valuable to someone interested in this way of building, and submitting professional plans and drawings can greatly facilitate the permitting process.”
Howard White, a building official with St. Johns County, agrees. “We have a very stringent Florida Building Code and containers are not constructed under any recognized Florida code criteria. However, one requirement for building is to secure the services of a bona fide engineer licensed in the State of Florida. That engineer is charged with the responsibility of designing the entire package and could work in conjunction with an architect to ensure that all safety elements are in place.” Howard was familiar with Rob’s situation and remembers that, “A considerable amount of time was spent working on getting things right: the plans were very well done.” For anyone considering a container home, White recommends talking with an SJC building official as the very first step.
As with any project of this size and scope, delays and frustrations are inevitable. Any words of wisdom from container pioneer Rob DePiazza? He laughs and says, “Well, I like a challenge and I feel I have an abundance of fortitude. That helps.”
Written by Susan Johnson. Photography by David Steele.