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First day of construction on shipping container apartment in DC mostly ‘smooth and easy’

Updated: 
July 23, 2014 - 4:48am

WASHINGTON — The 400-ton crane was all set, tucked between three sets of hanging wires, two houses and a cantaloupe plant with a small hanging melon, and John Creese was edgy.

“The first one’s the only one that worries me. There will be a learning curve,” said Creese, who was helping orchestrate Washington’s heavy-machinery take on a barn raising Monday.

A dozen workers, including crane operator Ed Kane, had come from Georgia and California and Baltimore to build a three-story apartment building made of shipping containers — in three days or less.

Just before Kane lifted the first slate-blue container from the back of a flatbed, Creese laid out the task: “He’s got to pick it up, swing it over the houses and drop it right where it goes. Hopefully, it’s nice and smooth and easy.”

Creese leapt up on the corrugated-steel box to hook cables to the container’s corners, then climbed down and headed for a set of steel and concrete columns jutting up where an old group house once stood.

A young group of friends who met at neighboring Catholic University, and an architect who teaches there, tore the place down earlier this year to make way for an eye-catching steel, glass and translucent plastic replacement that is supposed to glow like a light box. In a city of soaring rents, their experiment in lower-cost, faster-moving construction could lead to more affordable housing and, backers hope, even a floating village of sea-container apartments on the Potomac River.

Creese’s dad, Bill, has been working on containers in Baltimore for more than 30 years, and oversaw the work slicing tall windows and other openings in the 18 containers that will be stacked at Seventh St. NE near where the District’s Brookland and Edgewood neighborhoods meet.

On Monday, John Creese and his brother Larry eyed the first container as it was hoisted toward the sky, swept high over a pair of neighboring homes and came toward its new foundation. Kane’s goal: “Just keep clearing the lines and stay away from houses.”

As he lowered it to 100, then 50, then 20 feet, Kane’s view was blocked by a neighboring house and he had to work blind.

The Creese brothers grabbed a pair of ropes tied to the bottom of the container and guided it toward 7-by-7-inch targets on a pair of columns and reinforced walls.

Dan Gill, a second crane operator equipped with only a radio, stood by and guided Kane through each gentle step. He was Kane’s eyes.

“One end touched down,” Gill told his partner. Then, repeating a mantra that slowed with each word, Gill said: “Cabling down eeaazzy. Cabling down eeaazzy.”

The Creese brothers used the rope, and their hands, to nudge the 8-by-40 foot box into place. “I just barely touched it and it slid right where it’s supposed to be,” Larry Creese said.

But it was still a hair off, and it had to be moved again. It was too heavy to push — or sledgehammer — into place.

“I didn’t eat no spinach this morning,” John Creese said. “What do you think, I’m Popeye the sailor man?”

Up again, then: “Cabling down, cabling down. Stop!” Gill said.

And there it was, all four corners, without the slightest clank or thud. Just down.

“It’s perfect,” John Creese said.

The next five went easier, and they kept sliding one box beside the other.

They were planning to do six a day for two more days. But if they can get the trucks coming in fast enough, they’re going to try to stack up the remaining 12 on Tuesday.

“We don’t have to try to align everything together on the foundation,” Creese said. Instead, they can click them together, Lego-style, with the same automatic locks that keep containers stable on ships headed for America’s shores.

They’ll be “welded to the foundation, bolted together, twist-locked together, then we’ll also weld them together,” Creese said. “When it’s done it will essentially be one building. They’ll be joined together in so many places there will be no possible movement.”