Sustainable and Affordable: Architect Brian Stark Talks Sparkbox and the Future of Housing
The team behind some of the most unique and sustainable residences in the Valley has started a new venture creating prefabricated, off-the-grid backyard units. Sparkbox is the brainchild of architect and Local Studio head Brian Stark. Through Steel + Spark, his team is crafting studio and one-bedroom units from shipping containers. Ideal for additional space on a homeowner’s lot, these accessory dwelling units are a much-needed solution, providing more housing quickly and sustainably, Stark says. Units, which range from $80,000 to $260,000, are being fabricated and shipped in Arizona now. Stark shared more about the Sparkboxes and why he’s launched this business and his plans to partner with Phoenix to address its housing shortage.
Q&A: Architect Brian Stark on Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis
You’re known for your shipping container communities such as IDA and The Oscar. Why did you want to move into prefabricated, individual units?
There’s a lot of need in the market for housing as Boomers age. Any way to get housing out into the market quickly is the key. I’ve also had a lot of frustration with where the market is. By manufacturing the homes, we can control the quality. Sustainability is also a component.
Let’s talk about the sustainability of these units and how they work off-grid.
Sustainability is important because of what we’re dealing with. We live in the desert. We’re the first ones to feel that impact, and because of our climate, we’re dealing with water issues.
The idea, and my goal one day, is to be able to produce prefabricated homes at a rate where you can buy them, and we can deliver them in two weeks. We’re two to four months out now, which now is still incredible. If you wanted to build something in your backyard, you’re not going to have that for a year to a year and a half.
Sustainability is what allows fast delivery. We have solar and lithium batteries that eliminate the need for electricity. We have an incinerating toilet that saves 2,000 gallons of water per year and does not require you to be hooked up to a waste line. The only thing you need is 1,250 gallons (of water, stored in a tank in the unit), which would last you for two months if you’re a single person or a month if you’re two people.
Right now, you’re manufacturing three models. Tell us about them.
The Studio (we call it Sparkbox 1) is selling for $80,000 —it’s actually a result of COVID. More people are working in their backyards as they work from home. That’s a cultural shift that we’ve all seen, and people need extra space. That’s been a good solution. It’s also a great solution for an art studio, music studio, a full gym or just a place to hang out. There are a lot of uses for it for somebody who just needs additional space. But there’s no toilet in it.
Sparkbox 2 is basically a bedroom and bathroom. There are two different models: an accessible unit and a standard unit. Those range from $218,000 to $260,000. The bathroom is the biggest difference. The room is much larger: you have a bed; a kitchenette with a dedicated circuit for cooking; a refrigerator; and an incinerating toilet.
Getting inventory out there will directly help with the housing problem. When we sell Sparkboxes, $1,000 goes to homeless housing.
What was your approach to designing the interiors?
It’s similar to everything we do, which is great finishes and details. We’re using quality materials that will last.
Let’s talk about how you build these units.
We went Detroit, purchased robots that were used in the Mercedes factory, and retooled them. One cuts the containers, and we’re designing another one to sandblast the containers. This will give us the ability to have a much easier path to production.
What’s the response to Sparkbox so far?
I see this with shipping containers, people always say, “Holy cow, this is not what I expected!”
There’s a huge educational component. People are still asking how much it costs to run the air conditioner. With solar, there is no cost.
One thing we’re proud of is the accessibility for people in wheelchairs. For them to be able to move around a whole unit in their wheelchair, I think that’s a great response.
You’re also partnering with the city on a project to provide temporary housing for people facing homelessness through a version of a Sparkbox called X-Wing.
With X-Wing, they’re sleeping rooms—bathrooms are provided separately—and it gives shelter to 20 people, and it’s set it up in one day. We’re doing four of them for the City of Phoenix right now and that will house approximately 80 people. And, again, it’s off-grid and drops in a day.
The goal is to elevate people through the housing continuum and out of homelessness. The whole (city) campus will house 300 people. We’re just providing non-congregant housing.
I hope that this solution is not only sustainable but also quick to market so that we can do more of them and hopefully get people off the street.