When Hurricane Irma ripped through Florida in 2017, Robert DePiazza lost the home he had lived in for more than 30 years. But he turned his life around when he took a chance on a DIY container home.
Meet The DePiazzas
The DePiazza's new home became a local tourist attraction when Robert and his family began building it. "People will drive by every weekend or during the week just to see what's going on," he recalled.
And with good reason: it was being constructed out of a set of nine shipping containers! Safe to say, it was quite a sight to behold in his neighborhood. But the idea for the architectural curiosity had actually begun long before… in Robert DePiazza’s first Florida home.
Originally, Robert and his family had lived in St. Augustine, Florida, for decades. They had enjoyed a happy and stable life up until 2017. Sadly, a natural disaster named Hurricane Irma tore through their family home after hurtling through the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Cuba, and more.
During its rampage, Hurricane Irma caused an estimated $8 million of damage in St. Augustine, according to state reports. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, particularly in the municipal marine area where the DePiazzas happened to live. Their family home was one of them.
"The Worst Thing"
Throughout the Sunshine State, the lives of countless Floridians were in disrepair. St John’s County, where St. Augustine was located, was hit particularly badly. Tens of thousands of residents went without electricity, and rivers and creeks were flooding badly throughout the county.
And though the flooding and electricity would no doubt have been an issue for Robert's family, that wasn't what destroyed their home. That dubious award went to a falling tree that was struck down by the hurricane. "Well, the worst thing that could happen has happened," Robert later said.
No Insurance Help
Sadly the DePiazzas had completely underestimated how strong Hurricane Irma would be, and the consequences were devastating. "We actually stayed in the house for Irma because I felt comfortable with the tree not coming down," Robert said. "And then, at like 5 in the morning, it fell."
At that point the old home was unlivable, and Robert needed enough funds to make the dwelling safe for his family to live in. But that was going to be much harder than he thought. "My biggest problem was insurance," DePiazza explained. "As it worked out, I didn't have enough coverage."
Thirty Years Later
But Robert wasn’t ready to give up. He sought out every possible option that might help him to restore his family home, but they all came to nothing. The DePiazzas couldn’t get enough funds together, and their ravaged home was not safe enough to live in.
Their family was far from the only ones being turned away by insurance companies in Florida, and they realized there was nothing they could do. "I lived in the house that was destroyed by Irma for 31 years," Robert said. For the time being, the DePiazzas had to move to temporary housing.
Building Something New
He knew he had to give up on his family home, but that didn’t mean he had to give up on the land beneath it. If he couldn’t use the building, he would still use the St. Augustine property. And so he came up with a new idea, for a different kind of home on the same plot of land as the old one.
Years earlier, Robert had traveled to Zurich, Switzerland. During his travels, he encountered a very interesting building. It was the headquarters of a sustainable Swiss backpack company… built entirely out of steel shipping containers! It gave Robert the inspiration he needed to start something new.
Though the destruction of their home had been heartbreaking at first, Robert began to think of it as a blessing in disguise and an opportunity to try something he had always wanted to do - to build a new home like the fascinating building he had seen years before in Europe.
It was time to get to work. While his family lived in a temporary home, they hired a crew to demolish the remains of their old one. It was a sad sight to watch, but Robert knew that something even better lay ahead. It was time to start building his dream container home.
Building The Foundation
As construction started, the sadness of losing their old home began to melt away, and optimism set in. They hired professionals and brought in a group of friends to help with the project. First, they began building the foundation for the home and pouring in the backfill.
It may not have been the most interesting or glamorous part of the construction, but it had to be done before they could start on anything else. "In container house construction, the foundation is crucial," Robert explained. Once the foundation was set, they could bring in the main event.
That's right, the steel shipping containers were the most exciting part of the build and would make up the majority of the structure. It hadn't taken Robert long to find these building blocks. He paid a visit to Con Global Industries, which branded itself as "North America's largest provider" of depot services.
The depot service company gave him a tour of their stockyards, where they stored many different shipping containers. Robert had the chance to browse through and choose the best selection for his future home. Above is a shot of two of the delivered containers, but there were plenty more to come.
Painting Their Story
Robert was a great lover of the arts, so the aesthetics of his home were important. He didn't hold back when it came to designing his unique future home, and that didn't just apply to its shape and structure. He also wanted a piece of art that would reflect the journey of his home.
So he hired artist Riccardo Nannini, a friend of his, to paint a vivid mural on the side of one of the containers, seen above. For those who can’t tell, the cosmic painting tells the personal story of how Hurricane Irma destroyed the DePiazza family home, a reminder of what they lost before the new house was built.
By now, there were three shipping containers on the property (including the one with the painted mural), and six more needed to be shipped to St. Augustine. Once all nine structures were on the property, it was surprisingly easy to fit them all together, forming the shell of their new home.
Robert already knew how he wanted the exterior structure to look. "So there are nine containers in total," he explained. "Two that are on the ground that are like workshop space. The living space is five containers, so it's 1600 square feet. I added another container on top to get the volume."
While the exterior was coming together without a hitch, the interior was a very different story. The entire structure needed to be fixed up and renovated before anyone could move inside. It was time to transform the collection of steel shells into a real home.
But given his past experience with Hurricane Irma and his childhood home, it was of utmost importance to Robert that their new home was as durable as possible - even more so than the one before. This meant a lot of extra repairs, including fixing up the “low spot” on the new roof.
Framing Their Home
After all the preliminary repairs were done, it was time to start the framing. Every wall in the structure would need to be framed, and Robert had planned to use InSoFast panels to do the job, as they were "continuous insulation panels [that] can be applied universally to any interior wall," according to their website.
But due to the experience and skillset of his construction crew, DePiazza had to opt for a different framing material. "Long story short and $6k later, we opted for wood framing because it's more relatable to the... plumber [and] electrician," he said.
Windows and Walls
But the walls weren’t the only thing that needed to be framed. Robert’s crew had also cut several windows into the walls of the containers, which gave them the difficult task of needing to frame steel windows. Thankfully, the homeowner had expected such an obstacle.
"Constructing around an atypical structure poses many challenges," he said simply. "Especially framing the window openings and other areas that require anchoring wood to steel." Despite the difficulties, the small team managed to complete the framing without much incident.
A Little Exposure
Now it was time to build the walls, a step which would make the structure seem even more like a future home. But Robert didn’t want walls everywhere. Instead, he opted to leave some of the original steel exposed, a move he felt would bring more authenticity to the space.
"You know, it's like a patina of history, of how these have been utilized, and I just feel like it's such a part of their character," he explained. The original plywood floors were also kept. "You know all the scuffs and all the gauges and the patches and things, we embrace it."
Wide Open Spaces
The completed home would have three stories total, with a bit of variation between the three. The third floor was for the family bedrooms, and the second was for the living area. One of the containers on the third floor would also be used to create a larger, more open ceiling for the living room.
To do this, they removed the floor of the container completely, leaving an open space that made the living room ceiling larger. It also left an open space between Robert’s reading nook on the third floor and their living room. The larger windows they were able to build into the living area also let in plenty of natural light.
The Septic Tank
While the construction was plenty of fun in some ways, there were still some less pleasant aspects of designing a new home. For one, the septic tank. Robert still had to figure out a way for his family to go to the bathroom, so he had a small septic system installed.
Once the messier aspects of the build were finished, the house really seemed to be coming together. But Robert still faced his fair share of obstacles. "I'm having trouble getting insurance, partly because of all the storms," he said. Despite the struggles, he continued on.
The Complete Picture
Just 2 years after Hurricane Irma had ripped through St. Augustine and destroyed the DePiazza home, Robert had managed to build something entirely new for his family. Below is the finished product, a three-story shipping container home with a custom-made mural for decoration.
The impressive structure had a staircase leading to the main entrance of the home, which was on the second floor. With the exception of the mural, Robert had left the exterior steel cladding exposed, lending an industrial feel to the home's quirky, modernist construction.
But what about the interior of the DePiazza’s container home? Naturally, there was plenty of Robert’s natural flair inside the building, from unusual style to bold colors and accessories. Robert was a confident interior designer, turning the space into a quirky, comfy, open-living home.
The living room walls had been painted white, but as mentioned, several of the original steel container walls were left exposed. Leaving the remaining walls white meant that the artwork Robert had chosen had a better chance to shine. The space was also furnished with a jukebox and flat-screen TV.
Just across from the living room, still on the second floor, was the family dining room. It had both a double-stooled breakfast bar and a dining table beside it, nestled into a comfortable leather booth. And just like the living room, it had several eccentric art pieces too.
The table and booth may seem like an unorthodox design choice, but it was actually a perfect imitation of the same dining room area Robert had in his original home. "It adorned my home for nearly 30 years," he exclaimed. "I will continue the booth tradition in the new house employing the same manufacturer."
Looking around at the DePiazza home, it should be no surprise that their motto is "good vibes only." All of the communal spaces in their tiny home share a common theme of bold colors and unusual design choices, and the kitchen is no exception, with its multi-colored cupboards.
But it’s as functional as it is stylish. Robert and his crew installed steel countertops and matching appliances, including a sink, oven, and coffee machine. The sink was placed conveniently below the window, so any cooking and washing up could be done with a St. Augustine view.
Though these three rooms took up a decent amount of space, there was still more to be found on the second floor. Last but not least, after the living room, dining room, and kitchen, was the shared bathroom, which had also received a dose of eccentric DePiazza interior design.
Just look at the vibrant, multi-colored design Robert had chosen for the shower tiles. Despite their boldness, they didn’t overwhelm the space as he had also chosen a neutral black and white to go with it, making the shower a vibrant centerpiece for the room.
The Third Floor
Now onto the third floor, the very top of the DePiazza home. Directly above the living room is a small nook that looks out over the second floor, lending a quiet place for the family to relax with a book. The double-ceiling makes both floors feel more open and spacious.
The second floor and the reading nook on the third floor are connected by a custom-made wooden staircase, which is in turn connected to a railing that fences off the nook. Retro posters, accessories, and upholstery bring more color to the area and continue the creative theme from the second floor.
The Smaller Bedrooms
The family bedrooms can also be found up here, as it is a little more closed off and private than the second floor. There are also plenty of windows that bring in natural light and scenic views of the surrounding areas. Below is a picture of one of the smaller bedrooms.
It’s a beautiful bedroom with plenty of character, and enough space for a bed, desk, and hangout area, complete with a couch and coffee table. Unlike much of the house, it has pale blue walls and accessories with more neutral, toned-down colors, a surprising change from the communal spaces.
The Ultimate Resting Place
The last of the rooms is the master bedroom, Robert’s private space. It also comes with its own ensuite. Unlike the previous bedroom, Robert’s bedroom is very similar in style to the rest of the house, with zany modern art and bright colors adorning the walls.
The large bathroom is plenty big enough for Robert, complete with a large sink and benchtop, a spacious walk-in shower, and a toilet. Looking at it now, it hardly seems possible that such a magnificent home was once a cluster of shipping containers. There’s no doubt about it - the DePiazzas have the ultimate resting place.