Salvaged Shipping Containers Aid Building Expansion

Building expansion experiences metal design in varied levels and angles

Middleton, Wis.-based ETC (Electronic Theatre Controls) is one of North America’s largest suppliers of dimming, rigging, lighting control and entertainment lighting fixtures for the entertainment and architectural markets. When it came time to expand its Middleton facility, ETC needed a theme that would create a unique and artistic expression reflective of its creative values and its core competencies.

With more than 1,300 people in 13 countries, ETC was rapidly growing and needed to expand its existing 328,000 square feet of office, manufacturing and warehouse space. Its new, 74,500-square-foot, multistory addition does this with room for an additional 200 new desks, lounge space, and meeting rooms for research and development. “The new addition is a way to combine research and development, and marketing in one location as a means of co-mingling the sometime disparate groups,” says Kirk Biodrowski, project manager, Sketchwork Architecture, Middleton. “ETC wanted a space that fosters the creative spirit necessary for the success of these two departments. In addition, they wanted a way to provide a competitive edge when retaining and seeking new talented employees.”

The general contractor and metal installer for the expansion was 1848 Construction Inc., Middleton; the steel fabricator was Skyline Steel Inc., Skyline Steel Inc., Arlington, Wis; the structural engineer was MP-Squared Structural Engineers LLC, Madison, Wis. 

Salvaged Shipping Containers

The upcycling addition on the north side of ETC’s building includes retrofitted private offices and conference spaces made from 41 salvaged, corrugated-steel cargo shipping containers that once transported goods across the ocean. The container fabricator was SG Blocks, New York City.

Stacked on multiple levels, these containers and their occupants’ organization were thoughtfully planned to create departmental neighborhoods within the facility. A second floor was added to house more neighborhoods. These areas have in-house-designed partition walls outfitted with corrugated paneling that emulates the containers below. Matching metal panels from Bozeman, Mont.-based Brandner Design form coffee areas, conference room walls and furniture. Design decisions were carefully considered with respect to material placement, view angles, efficiency and theme, including the placement of every conduit, duct and pipe.

Bossier City, La.-based McElroy Metals supplied 20,500 square feet of Mega-Rib Panels for the second-floor coffee, elevator and office cubicles. Mega-Rib is a 7.2-exposed fastener metal roof and wall panel made of Galvalume carbon steel sheeting coated with aluminum-zinc alloy. It is coated with Kynar 5000 polyvinylidene fluoride in a variety of colors to match the shipping containers. Steve Shulfer, project architect at Sketchwork Architecture, says Mega-Rib's bold ribs provide “a powerful architectural statement.” For the steel backsplash and cabinet panels, 760 square feet of Bradner Design’s hot-rolled, 16-gauge steel in Rusted Veil and Blackened colors were used.

“The owners became fascinated with the idea of using shipping containers and metal paneling to break the dogma typically associated with office design,” Shulfer explains. “The Mega-Rib, cabinet and backsplash metal paneling selected reflected the design style of the containers, helping achieve the material selection that brought it all together in one cohesive whole. The owners and the design team selected metal for this project because a more industrial aesthetic was desired for the expansion. In addition to physical design contribution, these metal panels were selected for their durability and ease to work with, along with complimenting the shipping containers and helping to create some unique spaces.”

While the building owners had a strong design sense, it was up to Sketchwork Architecture to help focus its ideas to create a cohesive whole and making wayfinding easier, while still creating interesting and diverse spaces. “The building shell and plan work together; the different neighborhoods also work together in plan,“ says Kirk Biodrowski, project manager at Sketchworks Architecture. “In addition, we were responsible for navigating the difficult code issues that arose from a multistory, open-floor concept.”

To showcase the exposed metal structure, containers are stacked upon one another creating a mezzanine above the first floor. This mezzanine required a steel-framed catwalk to allow access to that level. “The entire catwalk is exposed steel,” Biodrowski says. “Conscious decisions were made to ensure that each detail of the catwalks was well thought out, even at the expense sometimes of more prudent engineering. For example, hollow structural steel (HSS) tubes [from SkylineSteel Inc., Arlington, Wis.] were selected for the secondary support frames despite being more expensive. These supports were also meticulously laid out to ensure that the distances between them were constant.”

The metal containers are designed to carry load in a very particular way with their walls acting as shear walls for any load placed on them. “When we cut away the walls to create the openings for the doors, etc., we eliminated the shear of these walls,” Biodrowski says. “So additional support had to be designed and constructed to allow for these openings.” 

When visitors first walk into the addition, they can become overwhelmed by the multicolored containers, making wayfinding seem daunting. Therefore, color groups were selected by ETC to represent each neighborhood, with a few complimentary colors mixed in to provide some interest. Biodrowski says the containers were painted at the container fabricator and retouched once installed. 

Glazed Curtainwall 

In addition to the shipping container neighborhoods, an expansive, 40-foot-high, north-facing, glazed curtainwall shows the adjacent public parklands, athletic fields, bike trail, regional airport and busy traffic thoroughfare. Supplied by Kawneer Co. Inc., Norcross, Ga., and installed by Klein-Dickert, Pewaukee, Wis., it allows in natural, diffused light. Also, the Middleton community can view the layered, multicolored arrangement of containers through the curtainwall. “The scene captured from any northern vantage is dramatic and inspiring; a symbol of the very business that ETC embodies,” Biodrowski says. 

“There was always a desire to bring in as much of the outside into the space as possible,” Biodrowski adds. “The container plan layout was imagined as a sort of forest through which one can discover new and interesting spaces. So it was natural to want to blur the lines between the outdoors and the interior. The large curtainwall helps accomplish this concept. Tilting the wall further blurred the lines between the indoors and outdoors. At certain times, reflections of the shipping containers off the glass wall give the impression that the building is much longer. During the daylight hours the landscaped area in front of the curtainwall provides an enticing oasis from the office.”

On the curtainwall, steel framing within the mullions supports the tall spans. “The curtainwall framing was braced back to the structural steel skeleton for intermediate support,” says Brad Crowley, project manager for the ETC North Expansion and president of 1848 Construction. 

ETC 6.jpg

“Aluminum storefront clerestory windows and an aluminum skylight were also utilized to harvest natural light. Solar shading is controlled by ETC’s lighting software to manage direct sunlight on the work surfaces based on their location inside the building.” Cross bracing was added for lateral support, but was highlighted and accented with a large circular connection where the bracing intersects because the building owners wanted to express the steel framing. 

Plans already are in the works for the next ETC construction project: an interior remodeling to add offices and training rooms, set to start in 2020.