When Indianapolis restaurateurs Marc Urwand and Deidra Henry wanted to open a swanky cocktail lounge last year in the city's So-Bro area, they didn't automatically think traditional brick and mortar.
"We wanted to stay on top of the times," says Urwand.
So they designed E+D (Eat+Drink) using a 20-foot-long, corrugated steel shipping container.
"We basically wanted to bring an urban element, and it seemed that it would attract a lot of attention," says Urwand, who along with his wife and business partner, Deidra, also owns Taste Cafe, a popular breakfast/lunch spot next door to E+D. "I also love using different elements within the design of (our restaurants)."
The shipping container at E+D, which stands 8-feet wide and 8-and-a-half feet tall, isn't just a design aesthetic. It's also functional space.
The first few feet of the steel container, which protrudes 5 or 6 feet toward College Avenue, serves as the entrance. The rest is an air-locked vestibule inside that seats about 8-10 customers in a lounge setting.
"You can watch people eat (and drink) inside the container," says Urwand, a native New Yorker, who had seen shipping containers used in unique ways outside of Indiana and wanted to bring that "cool" factor to the SoBro area.
Since 2006, shipping containers have become extremely popular in home building, business construction, storage, mobile classrooms and prefabrication, according to the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association.
But for creative types like Urwand, the sky's the limit for these steel boxes that once traveled across land and ocean transporting products and raw goods.
Along New York's Hudson River at Pier 57, shipping containers have been transformed into everything from restaurants to art galleries. Throughout the country, they're used as pop-up beer gardens, bike/storage shops, retail stores and single-family homes.
The phenomenon has caught on in Indianapolis.
Within the last five years, Susie Osborne, senior sales rep at Pac-Van, Inc., in Indianapolis says that sales of shipping containers have increased.
"People have different uses for them," says Osborne, adding that the containers' portability and price points have contributed to the popularity. "People here are using them for gardens, classroom laboratories and concession stands."
Prices can range from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on the condition of the container.
There's a red 40-foot shipping container in the back of Judge's Tip of the Rib barbecue restaurant in Haughville that owner Judge Smith has used as a smokehouse since 2004.
"It provides protection from the elements, and keeps my grills from warping," says Smith, who wasn't following a trend when he purchased his container from Pac-Van, Inc.
Of course, Smith modified the container, adding paint, a garage door, eight windows (four on each side), an exhaust fan and electricity for lights. Also inside are six large grills, each capable of holding about 20 slabs of ribs.
A blue container, with a multicolored acrylic canopy for shade, sits on the campus of Butler University and is used as a classroom for the school's Center for Urban Ecology Farm. Inside are moveable tables and chairs. The classroom also has a rainwater collection system, a deck and planters.
Each year, several 40-foot tan shipping containers dotted Indianapolis' landscape for about four years during Installation Nation, an annual art show presented by Primary Colours. Local artists used the containers as makeshift galleries for their installation art.
"A lot of sculptors, fabricators and installation artists thought it was a cool way to do installation art," says Brian Short, president of Primary Colours.
But as the installations started to lean more toward technology, those shipping containers became an obstacle.
"What we ran into in the beginning was perfect," says Short. "By the 2012 show, a lot of the work had moved to electronics and most of the components were getting fried in the containers, because it was so unbearably hot. We found that using them became limiting."
By 2014, Primary Colours ditched the containers and moved the show to the Indianapolis Art Center's outdoor ARTSPARK.
For Urwand and Henry, the $3,500 shipping container (also purchased at Pac-Van, Inc.) at the centerpiece of E+D is working just fine.
Urwand and his wife created the lounge with designer Matty Bennett. Inside of the container, they left the sides and ceiling in their original state, and used part of the doors as a design element downstairs.
To get the container in place, Bennett says they brought it in by crane and slid it in on rollers.
"That was a cool project to work on," says Bennett, who left the container's serial number intact. It's located on the front of the building, with a red and green light above it to signal when E+D is open or closed.
Both Urwand and Bennett say they've had to explain to people that the shipping container isn't some type of storage or construction bin.
"If I give people a tour of the (lounge), they usually get it," says Urwand.
Although Bennett believes they ran a fine line with the design, he's pleased with the final product.
"The utilization is something different," he says.