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Big Box Theory: Shipping Container Converted Into Backyard Pottery Studio

With the help of her builder friend, a former interior designer transforms a shipping container into a backyard pottery studio.

By John Roark | Photography by David B. Moore

“I had a 20-year career as an interior designer, which can be very hectic and stressful,” says homeowner and ceramist Kerrie Schmidt. “I reached the point where I knew I needed to slow down and reevaluate, so I quit, cold turkey.” But artistic types don’t do well being idle. “It became clear fairly quickly that I needed a creative outlet,” she recalls. “I tried all kinds of things, including knitting, but nothing felt exactly right. I had played with clay a bit in college. I enrolled in a pottery class at Phoenix’s Shemer Art Center, and I loved it. Soon I had signed up for four classes a week. There was no turning back.”

The shipping container’s east-facing end was replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass. “I love having all of the greenery around me,” says ceramist and homeowner Kerrie Schmidt. “I feel like I’m floating.”
Kerrie describes her work as simple, neutral, organic and textural. “Nothing is perfect,” she says. “You’ve just got to go with what happens. It’s a life lesson.”

After landing on her new passion, Kerrie began to think about where she could best practice her art. “I looked into renting, but then you have to factor in overhead and travel time. I’ve got two kids. I’m busy,” she says. It was her husband who suggested adding a studio to their home. “I’m not one to spend a lot of money on myself,” Kerrie says. “But Scott said, ‘You love it. It makes you happy. Just go for it.’”

After ruling out an in-house space (too much dust) or building an addition onto their Arcadia home (too expensive), the answer came in the form of the Schmidts’ longtime friend, builder John Gurley. “Our kids play lacrosse together and we ran into each other at a game,” Kerrie recalls. “He said, ‘I heard you retired. What’s wrong with you? Now what?’ I told him I wanted to start making and selling pottery and that we were exploring options for a studio. He said a shipping container was the way to go—less expensive than a build-out, and there was no need to obtain a permit.”

Gurley was familiar with the process of industrial container conversion, having installed one in his own backyard to store lawn and garden equipment. He found Kerrie a single-use container, meaning it had been used only once to transport cargo from overseas. While the Schmidt family was away on vacation for the summer, Gurley oversaw prepping the site for plumbing, electric, footings and grading so that the container would set elevated and level. Using a 110-ton crane, the 20-feet-long by 8-feet-wide steel box was carefully positioned, coinciding with Kerrie’s 50th birthday. “The proximity to power lines and the weight of the container put us right at the limit,” he recalls, “but it fit like a glove.”

Storage within the small space was carefully considered. Below the work table, a built-in cabinet is perfectly sized to hold 30 jars of ceramic glaze.
These wheel-thrown cups have been glazed and are ready for sale.
At work in her studio with the door and cantilevered window open, Kerrie enjoys fresh air and natural light—and has a view of the backyard, where her sons and their friends hang out and play lacrosse. The family’s dog, Billie, is always nearby.

The artist and builder worked closely on creating a studio that would be both functional and an aesthetically pleasing backyard addition. “It couldn’t look like a cheap, stupid box,” Carrie recalls with a laugh. “I wanted it to look intentional, not like we made do. It needed to look cool.” It was also important that the interior not be cramped and claustrophobic. Gurley brought in essential natural light by removing the container’s east-facing end—replacing it with a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass—and using it as a divider on the opposite end separating the kiln from the live workspace. A large glass entry door provides a nice view of the pool patio. An additional cantilevered window can be opened to bring in fresh air.

Kerrie compares the process of creating her pottery studio to “building a tiny home,” and says the small scale suits her perfectly. “I didn’t want to be cut off from my family when I’m out there or feel like I’m locked in a box. I can open the door and the kids are right there. When I had my interior design firm, I was doing everything for everybody else, making sure their lives were happy and perfect. This is my spot, my happy place among the chaos. I can easily spend the whole day in there if I’ve got the time.”

Housed at the container’s west end in a walled-off, fire-resistant, ventilated room, the kiln can hold up to 7 cubic feet of pottery. Each piece requires two firings, with approximately 24 hours of total kiln time.
The outdoor sink was repurposed from an oil drum that previously held sports equipment.
Exterior lighting for the air-conditioned studio is synchronized with landscape illumination. Raised garden beds provide a buffer between the studio and the backyard.

CONTAINER CONVERSION

Builder John Gurley shares insider tips for homeowners interested in learning more about these versatile structures.

  • The cost of a single-use container, measuring approximately 8’H by 20L’ by 8’W, can be $4,000 to $5,000 or more, not including delivery or placement. Containers classified as “cargo-worthy,” which generally cost about $3,000, have been in use for a few years and may have rust, dings, dents and other signs of wear.
  • A single-use container is well worth the extra money. “There are some inexpensive boxes out there, but they are pretty weathered and beat up,” Gurley cautions. “If you’re installing this in your yard where you’ll see it every day, you don’t want it to look like it belongs in a junkyard.”
  • Do your homework and prep work before delivery, Gurley advises. “Once the box arrives and is placed, you have lost your chance to get the ground level and work out essentials such as drainage, plumbing and electrical.”

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