New York Times Paul Galvin Interview

Mr. Galvin, 52, is the chairman, chief executive and a founder of SG Blocks, a publicly traded company that repurposes maritime-grade steel cargo shipping containers into green building blocks for use in commercial, industrial and residential building construction. The containers are provided by ConGlobal Industries, a partner. The company, which was started in 2007, is based in New York.

Interview conducted and condensed by VIVIAN MARINO

Q. Why did you start this company?
A. I had gotten into real estate development through a charity that I co-founded and was involved in running, and we were developing housing programs for individuals and families with AIDS. So we had to figure out a way to give them continuum care — we had to get good at real estate. And we started to develop affordable housing. If you’ve ever done any development in New York, you know that the construction process is not always as predictable as you would like, and so I saw this as a way to create a sustainable alternative in the marketplace and eliminate some of the risk of site-base construction.

Q. Where did you do work for the charity?
A. Throughout Brooklyn and the Bronx.


Q. Have you thought about reaching out to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office about providing affordable housing alternatives using these containers?
A. Yeah. The marketplace seems to be heading toward smaller-footprint living and working spaces, particularly for millennials who are coming into the economy and having a rough time of it. We think our product lends itself to those kinds of creative spaces. We worked with the last administration, especially after Sandy. We actually had proposed providing 400 or 500 temporary stores in impacted areas with a private sponsor, but that never went off.


Q. You just finished a container-based project in Nashville.
A. Yes, that was a retail project.


Q. You’re working with other partners, including Palladium Management, on a mixed-use, multifamily project in New York.
A. Our product is engineered to go nine stories high, so right now we’re vetting one site in particular very closely in Manhattan for a mixed-use project. We think, plus or minus, the building will be somewhere around 16,000 to 17,000 square feet. We don’t make one container an apartment — maybe we’ll engineer four or five to create four apartments, and we take out the side walls to facilitate that. That building will probably be one floor commercial and seven apartments, a few of which will be duplexes. We have a letter of intent signed and partnership documents are being finalized. It would be a partnership with the landowner. I’m under an agreement; I can’t say who.


Q. Assuming everything is finalized as planned, when would you like to see the project completed?
A. We’d like to have the building delivered by late fall of this year.


Q. That’s pretty fast.
A. We’re doing a restaurant today — Do you know Bareburger? — in Oyster Bay Cove. It’s an 11-container restaurant, so around 2,300 square feet. We just did the first seven containers between 8 o’clock and 12 o’clock today. And then tomorrow morning the last four will come. And the building will be closed in a day and a half.


Q. How strong are these container foundations?
A. The containers are originally engineered to a very strict criteria — it’s called a Convention for Safe Containers. So that sounds boring, and it is. But every container in the world has to be built to that specification because they self-center and lock when they’re at sea.

Q. And they meet all of the requirements from the Buildings Department?
A. We meet or exceed all of the structural codes. And we have spent the better part of our existence getting permitted and approved in the biggest cities and the biggest jurisdictions as well as creating engineering tools that will help predict our building’s behavior in the built environment. Just to note that containers are 8,000 pounds. They can hold up to 50,000 pounds of cargo. So at sea that bottom container is holding up eight of its brothers and sisters. That’s 600,000 pounds of load at the dynamic forces at sea. It’s a highly oxidized steel and it’s engineered to be beaten up by saltwater at sea and to take a pounding.

Q. Is it cheaper to build this way?
A. I would say in Manhattan and the tristate area definitely. We quantify it in terms of economic impact. We just don’t go on price. We’re going to finish the construction in half the time, so that all of your soft costs — construction interest, builders risk, site security, building utilities — are going to be halved. And in addition to saving all that money and time, you’re getting your revenue in half the time, so if a traditional build is 24 months, and we open you in 12, you get a whole year of income.

Q. How much do the containers cost?
A. A brand new one could be $5,500 and an older one could be $2,000. Over time they could be a little more banged up or dented. But we know which walls are coming out so we can buy containers where half the walls are all banged up because we know that wall is coming out.

Q. Is it harder designing a structure using containers as the foundation?
A. We’ve really approached this as an engineered building system. Every building system has some constrictions. Every product and every site works for containers. I would say that within reason we’ve been able to date to create the structure and the space plan that the structure affords. We’ve been able to successfully do that so far. A building that would be, say, 100 percent curved wall glass on every side we would not recommend you use the containers.

Q. Could you ever see yourself living in a container-built home?
A. I’m designing one for a second home as we speak. I’m also looking at lots now. According to my wife these are the finalists: the Hamptons, the Hamptons, the Hamptons and maybe the Berkshires. It’s like midcentury modern architecture.