Lee Easton keeps calling and calling and calling.
That’s a good thing. He wants to talk about his new business, ModernBlox, and Easton — unconsciously, I suspect — assumes the reporter on the other end of the line is as excited about it as he is.
And that’s a good thing too, because enthusiasm, even from a soft-spoken sort like Easton, can be infectious. Even when the subject is used shipping containers.
These aren’t ordinary shipping containers, mind you. When Easton and his three partners get done with them, they can be transformed into bars or coffee shops or dorm rooms — or even homes.
That’s the beauty of ModernBlox — a Kawasaki shipping container that once traveled the world carrying engine parts can be turned into a funky, air-conditioned bar with flashing LED lights.
It’s “ship to manufacture, as if you were to go online on Amazon and click ‘buy,’” Easton said. “No one else is doing it in Oklahoma.”
Easton and his buddies from Oklahoma State University — three of the four, including Easton, are engineers — incorporated the company in March 2015.
The process of turning a shipping container into space that can be inhabited begins with ModernBlox buying used containers from TuffBox in Tulsa. The containers are then inspected, cleaned and any rust removed.
At that point, the shipping container is ready to be transformed into anything the customer desires. The owners of Inner Circle Vodka Bar in the Brady District, for example, wanted a funky outdoor bar with air conditioning. For good measure, Easton added colorful LED lights.
“We love the look of it. We love the feel. We love the durability of it,” said Andy Cagle a co-owner of Inner Circle, 410 N. Main St.
The old Kawasaki shipping container-turned-bar fits in just swell with the three other shipping containers on the Inner Circle property that are used for outdoor seating. Now those customers don’t have to go inside to grab a drink.
“We have so many people on our patio who just don’t want to come inside because it looks like long lines and everything else,” Cagle said. “There are people who want to spend money at our bar and aren’t.”
Or weren’t. The Inner Circle opened its shipping container-turned-bar in June, and it’s been a hit.
“We are hitting sales that I am actually shocked at,” Cagle said. “We are a high-volume speed bar and that just allows us to do more drinks.”
ModernBlox is not limiting itself to specialty units like the bar at the Inner Circle. Some of its most promising leads have come from organizations like Habitat for Humanity, which was interested in having the company build low-income housing units. Easton has also been in talks with a developer in Stillwater who is interested in building student housing and another who would like to build homes on Grand Lake.
“We’re still growing. We’re still learning this whole manufacturing process,” Easton said.
A basic single-unit home costs $49,000. That’s for the 45-foot-by-8.5-foot model, which includes a living room, kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen counters and windowsills are granite and the bathroom is tiled.
Customers can reduce the cost by $5,000 to $10,000 if they choose to pass on the granite and tile and make other changes in building materials.
The cost per unit goes down to as little as $30,000 when customers buy 10 or more, Easton said.
The shipping containers weigh 8,000 pounds empty and 16,000 pounds built out and aren’t about to blow away.
“It’s just a big metal box, and that thing is not going anywhere,” Easton said.
The units are kept in the ground one of two ways: either by anchoring them into concrete slabs, as the city of Tulsa’s building code requires; or with diamond piers, which are connected to the shipping container and then secured to the ground using long metal poles that run deep into the ground at an angle.
Easton estimates that a shipping container properly maintained would last at least 100 years.
“In harsh, harsh conditions the shipping container by itself … going around the world, storms, everything, their shelf life is 15 years,” Easton said. “The amount of stress they go under in those 15 years would equate to maybe 100 years sitting, maybe 150.”
ModernBlox isn’t the first company in Tulsa to use shipping containers to build cool stuff. Elliot Nelson is constructing a whole development out of them called The Boxyard, at Third Street and Frankfort Avenue.
Easton says the difference between what Nelson is doing and what ModernBlox wants to do is that The Boxyard is using shipping containers as building materials.
“We’re manufacturing homes and coffee shops, so we’re kind of a different business,” Easton said. “The way I see it, we almost could have been the supplier for them.”
That would require a manufacturing facility, which ModernBlox does not have. But Easton said several people have offered to back the company when that big order comes in, and ModernBlox has financing plans in place with the Tulsa Economic Development Chamber.
The public can view ModernBlox’s basic, single-container home at the Tulsa Home and Garden Show at Expo Square on July 29, 30 and 31. Once the show is over, the home will be moved to Seventh Street and Frankfurt Avenue, where it will be available for viewing by appointment.
The company is also working on a new model called HuntingBlox. It’s just what it sounds like — a place for hunters to congregate when doing their thing on some remote piece of property.
If you can’t wait until the Home and Garden Show to see how ModernBlox transforms shipping containers into usable space, drop by the Inner Circle.
The drinks are quite good and reasonably priced.
And the view at night is priceless.