Letting the Light In

Container home mixes modern and traditional

While the south light is great for living, the north light is good for making artwork,” Cathy Hoke explained as she showed me around her home. 

That Hoke designed her home to get light from opposing directions is emblematic of the project as a whole. The house is a series of juxtapositions – modern and traditional, dark and light – that all come together as a unique whole.

Hoke’s home, just outside of Fish Creek near the Greenwood Supper Club, sits in the woods – the final stop as a long, unpaved road curves to an end. It’s this quiet, middle-of-the-peninsula setting she envisioned for her dream home: the one she decided to build out of shipping containers.

Hoke’s dog, Monty, rests in the warmth of the sun in Hoke’s office. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

“I loved the design challenge of working with the shipping containers. They come in a certain size, eight feet by 40 feet, or eight feet by 20 feet, so it’s like building with Legos,” Hoke said with a laugh. “I loved the challenge of working with those constraints.”

Approaching home building as a design challenge seems fitting given Hoke’s creative lifestyle: She’s an art collector and maker, as well as the executive director of Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek. Her decision to use shipping containers came only after researching numerous building methods, including traditional stick construction and various alternative methods. 

Hoke explained that, having previously lived in a 120-year-old farmhouse, she wanted her new home to be low maintenance and energy efficient. It also needed to fit her budget, and, she emphasized, she didn’t want to compromise.

“I wanted what I wanted in the space,” she said. “I got bids for this size house in a traditional stick-built structure, and it was more than I could afford to spend.” Hoke said her shipping-container house ended up being about 25%-30% less than she would have paid for a similar traditional framed house.

Deciding to use shipping containers as her medium didn’t mean that she wanted a typical-looking shipping-container home, however – quite the opposite. Hoke wanted to use this unconventional material to create something that looked, well, conventional. 

“I love all of those Scottish longhouses – those really long, linear buildings that historically existed in northern climates. That was my inspiration,” she said. “I think that when people think of shipping-container houses, they think of rusted metal boxes all stacked in a crazy way. I was more interested in something that was more traditional in the vernacular – that when you look at it, it looks like a barn-shaped building.”

Hoke’s contractor, Factotum Fabricor in Appleton, specializes in exactly the kind of flat-roofed shipping-container aesthetic she did not want, so for owner Justin Kuehl, her project offered a new opportunity.

“Just the look and stance of that house are so different from what we’ve done,” Kuehl said. “[Cathy] wanted that 12-12, super-steep peaked roof, and it was challenging to do that.”

Kuehl said the puzzle for his team was, “Can you make a shipping-container house that is just a house without all the frills, and still make it look really cool? I think we did that.”

To make Hoke’s house, Factotum used four eight-foot-by-40-foot shipping containers set in a rectangle, with a four-foot open space lengthwise down the middle to create more usable space inside. The containers sit on a foundation, with a crawl space for the mechanicals. 

The dark exterior of the home stands in contrast to the bright interior, which is filled with natural light. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Factotum uses only single-trip containers – containers that have been used for only one load – because they don’t have as much wear and tear. The company does all of the painting and window and door cutouts at its shop before moving the containers on-site. 

From the outside, Hoke’s house echoes the currently popular modern-farmhouse look, with a black exterior, black metal roof and attached, wood-fronted garage. But the inside is completely different – by design.

“I love the surprise,” she said. “You look at the front of the house, and you just see those small windows and the black façade. Then you walk in, and it’s just filled immediately with light and connection to the woods.”

The interior walls and ceiling are all painted white to create a bright space and provide a neutral backdrop to showcase Hoke’s art collection. The woods even appear as giant paintings, framed by the huge, black-framed windows along the back side of the house. 

The art placement, naturally, reflects her design sense and her desire to honor her setting. Hoke explained which paintings she chose to hang on a wall of windows: “I wanted the ones that sort of mimicked what was happening outside,” she said. “They’re softer paintings. They’re green. They’re blue. They catch your eye, but they don’t distract from the view.”

Maximizing the view also allows Hoke to capture some solar gain through those windows – something she had in mind when she first bought the lot.

“I knew that this lot had the opportunity to have the back of the house facing south, so I had the ability to get all of this natural light,” she said.

The main living space is an open plan, with a seating area, dining space and kitchen that, all together, feel both modern and warm. A woodburning stove anchors the seating area, with softly upholstered furniture arranged around it. The dining table is made of reclaimed barn wood. Black, metal dining chairs give a nod to industrial design. 

The kitchen is the focal point, with a textured, gray-and-white tile backsplash that stretches to the ceiling. The island is covered with glossy, white countertops with a waterfall edge. Hoke’s bedroom and bathroom are on the other side of the seating area. Behind the kitchen, a massive butler’s pantry provides plenty of storage. Beyond that on one side is a guest bedroom and bath, and on the other side is her office.

The office is the one place where Hoke deviated from her plain, white walls. As a nod to her sense of playfulness, one accent wall features a geometric wallpaper pattern in shades of blue and orange, and her office chair provides a bright-orange pop of color. 

Hoke described building a shipping-container home as a process of deciding which part of the container to show and which to hide because the containers must be insulated somewhere. Her choice to show the container on the exterior meant insulating the walls inside – putting drywall over the containers’ ridged sides. But her pitched roof allowed for insulation above, leaving her free to keep the original texture of the containers for her ceiling.

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

“I loved the ridged metal on the ceiling – the shadows that created,” she said. “By painting everything white on the inside, you really see those shadows, and I love that.”

Although Hoke approached her home-building project as a design challenge, she encountered non-design challenges as well. One was finding financing. 

She said that banks are reluctant to finance shipping-container homes, so she’s grateful that Nicolet National Bank was willing to give her a mortgage, especially because it’s a mortgage the bank cannot bundle with others and sell – it has to hold the mortgage itself. Hoke also said that getting homeowner’s insurance was tricky because insurance risk models are based on traditional building materials. 

Hoke describes her home as “right sized and deeply personal.” It’s clear that the design and building processes were personal, too – like art: They’re expressions of her creativity and passion for exploring new ways of doing things.