Sarah House Project

Named after a San Francisco sculptor who could not afford a permanent place to live in her expensive city, the Sarah House Project in Salt Lake City, Utah is one man’s attempt to build an affordable home out of castoff shipping containers.

Sara Putnam, (the “h” for the project had already been added to a banner advertising the building) who recently died from cancer was living at an artists’ colony at the Hunter Point Naval Shipyards β€” where she wasn’t supposed to be sleeping. Her friend, Jeffrey White is building a 672 square foot home out of two 8×40-foot shipping containers. While visiting the Naval shipyards one night, White noticed dock workers unloading containers and thought about turning the big metal boxes into homes. The Sarah House Project has been funded by grants, donations and money raised by Jeffrey’s custom made funeral urns. He said in a recent Salt Lake City news report that his small, custom urns take up less space below ground, just as he hopes his home will take up less ground β€” above the ground.


The home will have a combination living room, dining and kitchen, a bathroom and bedroom and a day room. Jeffrey had originally put a 40-foot container on his driveway and started converting it into a house, but ran into trouble with city officials. Now the home is being built on some land procured by a local nonprofit, the Crossroads Urban Center, and when completed, will be sold to a low income family or couple.

Jeffrey estimates the cost of the project, including the land, at $108,000 – $115,000. This, he says, is close to the cost of a conventional home and is higher than he expected, but White hopes he’ll be able to bring those numbers down in future.

“I would love this house to come somewhere in the $60,000 – $75,000 range,” White said.


Photos courtesy of the Sarah House Project


By Christina Nellemann for the [Tiny House Blog]

32 thoughts on “Sarah House Project”

  1. This has to be the prettiest/neatest ‘container’ house exterior design I’ve seen YET! Usually, I can tell at first glance if a cottage/ranch/dwelling is made from SC’s, but not this time; my first thought was, ‘what a nice looking little – prefab, perhaps? – bungalow design’…
    Very nice work! I’m VERY INTERESTED in this option for my (someday) tiny house. AND this design would probably be so much easier to result in acceptance by local city and state building codes, as it’s truly quite attractive! πŸ˜‰
    Only one item I found disconcerting… I am on Disability (SSDI, the insurance kind, not the state aid kind) so am absolutely one of those ‘low income’ folk these days! 15 years ago I earned over $60k a year (by now I would have been earning close to $100k annually) so there is a HUGE difference between that and the less than $10k I now must subsist on…
    What I’m trying to point out is this: NO ONE I know of considered ‘low income’ could EVER be able to afford even a $60,000 tiny house, let alone something in the 6 digits. I wonder who these people are, who are earning around $75-100k a year, to be eligible for or considered as ‘low income’??? They are not. They are upper middle class. Incomes of less than $30k a year are the true ‘low income’ hardworking singles/couples/families. And they ae needing homes in the less-than-$50,000 range.
    Just wanted to umm… bring this up, because I KNOW there is a massive difference between low-income people wanting to simplify AND cut costs (with a tiny house) and everyone middle class income and up who are pretty much able to think anything ‘under $200,000’ as a ‘bargain’ for their ‘dream’ tiny-house.
    The simpler lifestyle and smaller footprint of a tiny home is a GOOD THING for everyone, regardless.
    It’s just I feel more builders need to somehow, some way, find a way to TRULY make something for the truly ‘low income’ of us out here (not just what they might consider as ‘lower’ income than they are familiar with).
    WHether by repurposing and/or refurbishing ‘used’ materials, locating donated and/or found materials, with which to slash much of the builder’s overhead, I KNOW there has to be a way this can be done, right?
    Or is the rift between America’s low-income and upper income widening that much more, putting the affordability of a ‘tiny home’ that much further away from true low income reality?

    • I agree with jipsi. I am on disability too. Could never afford 6 figures, or 5 figures for a house. Tiny houses I am looking at are about $3000.00 TOTAL, with a bit left over for a bit of land so I can have chickens and a garden.
      I get less per month (that has to go for everything) than most folk spend on their rent. I worked hard, and finally had to go on disability. I am looking at tiny houses so that I can get out of low income rent hell.
      Designers get a clue. Research low income before you go making a $150,00.00 home. If I had that much I could buy an existing small home with a plot of land here in Denver.

      • Louise, this is not an isolated thing, either. A few years ago a large mid-Illinois city’s newspaper featured an announcement by an area developer that they would be breaking ground on a ‘much-needed’ and anticipated housing development aimed at low-income citizens. Small lots, medium-sized ranch homes in 2 bedroom and 3 bedroom plans, in the ‘affordable’ price range of $110,000 to $150,000…
        I almost laughed out loud when I read that, except it HURT my chest too much to do so…
        At the time I even posted a ‘letter to the editor’ in regards to that story, positing that, if B-N developers sincerely believed ‘low income’ working families and retired couples/individuals could possibly ‘afford’ a mortgage of that size, then they were NOT ‘low income’!

        Because this story referred to little homes repurposed from shipping containers, I had hopes it would translate into moderately-priced results more attuned to low income (ie: ‘tiny’ budgets! lol).
        It DID disappoint me that any costs referenced were in the high end (for low incomes) and more appropriate for those with $35k to $60K and above. But I loved the end result, and still have hope something like this can be made available for those of us who truly are struggling with making our ‘tiny’ dreams come true on a rather short – and tattered! – shoestring budget. πŸ˜‰

        • The other downside of being on disablity is anything you own that is over the value of 2000 is consider asset.
          So if you’re on those low income programs because you have no way to due to illness, have a need medical treatments and various other things paid for the system considers you no longer eligible if you own anything over the 2000 dollar value.
          The goverment logic is if you can afford 60k to 100k home you don’t need help from them. This really sucks if you have no other means to support yourself due to disablity. Owning a home whatever size at this point in my life will be a dream, but its nice dream that why I follow this site.

          • Goodness, I completely forgot about that.

            It is an uphill battle to get on any assistance programs. I had a three year odyssey that finally ended with success in 2008 and I had back pay from Federal disability but I had to spend it down quickly or else the few programs I had managed to get on would drop me.

            My medications alone have cost over six figure now and that was one of the first things I would have lost access to.

            I would have loved to stockpile the back pay for a tiny home or a rainy day but the Byzantine logic of the Federal gov’t or local programs wouldn’t allow it.

            I had to essentially go shopping for toys, odds and ends and spend it in ways that the assistance programs couldn’t knock me off their doles for “giving away” too much money or assets in a suspicious manner.

            Pretty stupid eh? Maybe there was something I could have done differently but its water under the bridge now.

      • I just looked at the link for all the pictures as noted and I now realize why it was that price. First they used 2 shipping containers which the 1 time use ones are between 10k and 12k each and are better condition. Also they had large windows which certainly are more expensive than standard sizes. I costed out building out a home from containers and found when all was said and done it was not as cost effective as one is lead to believe.

      • No way a person making $10-12,000/yr can afford a $60,000 house. Add utilities, taxes, insurance & not enough left to live on.

      • True, but then you have taxes and and insurance.
        Plus most mortgage lenders require at least 20% down. I think that is part of the problem for people who are truly low income.

        • There are tons of down payment assistance programs that you can qualify for by just taking a class for a few hours. They can be for first-time home buyer, moving into an up and coming neighborhood, income based, or minority/gender based. I bought a $70k in 2005 and received $10k in assistance that I didn’t have to pay back as long as I lived in the house for 5 years. You just have to educate yourselves on the programs out there.

  2. I am a fan of container homes and this looks to be a good one. It is refreshing to read an account of the actual cost of a project like this. It is a sad fact that such conversions always seem to end up costing rather more than expected. The $108,000 seems a bit low though, does that include the cost of the land it sits on? I am also skeptical that the cost could be lowered nearly 50% down to the $60k range without it being a very different place. Too bad there were no interior shots so we could see how expensively it was finished off inside.

    One safety note: the wood floors on all shipping containers have been impregnated with a deadly insecticide that will outgas for years, resulting in long term exposure to toxins. The only solutions are to remove the floor, totally encapsulate it in epoxy or order new containers to be constructed without the treated flooring. All of these steps will increase the cost.

    • If you click on the link in the first paragraph it will take you to their Facebook page (you don’t have to be on Facebook or log in to see the interior shots. As of the 19th they are just dry walling, so it’s still a work in progress and not finished, at the current cost listed.

  3. I agree that this is a very attractive result from shipping containers! The roof on top and the paint(?) on the sides pulls the containers together into a home. Great!

  4. I live in the area. Just started checking to see if I can put that small of a place on a lot. Did you find areas that allow it? Can we see pics of the interior? Thanks

  5. First off, I think this design is adorable beyond words. It has an understated elegance and I applaud the attempt to secure a home for a sculptor who was essentially homeless.

    However I, like two other commenters above, am living on disability of around $12K/year. Just getting the cash together to buy a $1500 Honda that is 23-years old was a stretch. I have to live with my ex-partner and his boyfriend as I simply can’t afford the rent even in the less desirable properties in my area. Rental assistance has a waiting list of more than five years.

    Please don’t mistake this as trolling but how are folks at the near bottom of measurable income supposed to secure housing like this? I’ve honestly always wondered about that?

    I’ve read many times over that the expense creeps in via the materials or the special craftsmanship involved. Aren’t there any options that could shave these expenses? Maybe use ReStore materials instead of more expensive and new things? Perhaps involve organizations like Habitat for Humanity or local Shop classes from high schools or tech schools that could earn extra credit for helping construct a tiny house?

    I would love to see some kind of a forum or debate that tackled the giant elephant in the room concerning the affordability of these tiny houses for the lowest income bracket folks like myself.

    I am a big tiny house fan and still have a goal someday of having a tiny home of my own to live proudly in, but I think it’ll take a long time if the current housing climate is anything to go by.

    • Last week my wife & I looked at a park model home to put on an extra lot we own near the beach. The prices started at about $20,000 brand new with delivery. This would be very suitable for a single person or couple. I have built my last few homes, you can do it cheaper than what is stated.

  6. That’s the problem with these container homes; they are NOT cheap to transform into a home. People with money to throw at them think they are doing the earth a favor when they convert them, but it would make more sense if they were affordably made over for people who CAN’T afford a home.

  7. My concerns about sub-$10k homes are longevity and energy efficiency. What good does it do someone if their “affordable” home is constructed in such a manner that it rots or falls into ruin in a decade? IMHO there is a bare minimum of build quality to permit a house of any size to endure the elements, I question if a non owner built house under $6000 will have that quality. Especially if there is a profit, however small, included in that price.
    A cheaply constructed home that is poorly sealed and barely insulated is no bargain if the owner is faced with a choice between freezing in a drafty box or spending all their cash on heating. It is almost a “pay me now or pay me later” situation. For those in southern climes, substitute “sweltering in a sweat box” for freezing.
    Not saying that this house is like that, but I do feel that those sort of Tiny Home are out there, some have even been profiled here.

  8. I wish someone would start building retirement communities like this. Our conventional mobile parks are not attractive, don’t have any personal outdoor space, have entry steps or ramps, and no ownership of the prooperty.

  9. There are thousands of small and tiny towns in the middle of the country (KS/NE/MO/SD/ND/WY) where $40 -$60,000 will buy you a decently made 1930-50 crafted small house; in walking distance to everything. You’ll be in the middle of nowhere, hours from airports or ‘civilization’, but one can live decently there on disability.

    • Yes, land and housing is inexpensive there, but you will also be miles and miles from good medical care and hospitals. Something I would think would be important to those on disability as well as those on Medicare.

  10. Maybe the idea of a small house is what is wrong. Many people say that if the world is going to be able to cut itself off from its addiction to fossil fuels, that it is the urban communities that will do it.

    or maybe smaller houses in dense neighborhoods that would merit having public transportation with hours of operation that would make them a viable method of transportation for people.

    • I love this idea of urban affordable sustainable living,but find when developers finally get through with the plans there’s nothing sustainable or affordable about them. My wife and I are just in the process of retiring and would love to move to a community with city access to services with small affordable units to buy but in tucson that hasn’t happened yet

  11. I love what Jeffrey White has done with shipping the shipping containers. Like many others here, Ive never seen one so thoughtfully tuned to make it more than a big, sorta scary steel box.

    And, I love this discussion.
    The kind of forced impoverishment that disability brings is the stark reality for so so many people in the US ( and elsewhere, obviously-.
    The voices of those whose disabilities force them to live in substandard housing or no housing at all are a critical part of the Small Housing world not often heard.
    Thanks to all for bringing it to speak.
    Shack Dweller
    San Francisco

  12. Down here in Missisippi, you can pick up a water/airtight container for less than $3000 delivered & an acre of land can be bought for $5000 or less & many times will already have utilities & a septic system in place. Now if your frugal you can pick up a piece of property for under $1000 including catching up the back taxes. Again with some planning you can either barter for or buy most everything needed to turn a container into a tiny house at absolute auctions for pennies on the dollar. Then of course if your really frugal or on a limited budget you can scavenge many of the materials needed. Glass retailers that handle large sheets of plate glass are a good source for framing type lumber since the shipping containers for the glass are made sturdy enough to handle the weight & protect the glass. Granted these suggestions aren’t for those who want that $100,000 tiny house for show, but more for those looking to build their tiny house themselves & on a poor persons budget.


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