Richard McKown Reimagines Containers as Commercial Space

As with so many things in Oklahoma City right now, the use of shipping containers aligns the city with interesting and forward-leaning trends nationally. Small is the new big, say evangelists of the tiny house movement. Repurposing shipping

story by Greg Horton | photos by Chad Bennett

As with so many things in Oklahoma City right now, the use of shipping containers aligns the city with interesting and forward-leaning trends nationally. 

Small is the new big, say evangelists of the tiny house movement. Repurposing shipping containers that haul commodities produced in developing nations thumbs its nose at ’90s consumerism, proclaim cultural writers on the Coasts.

Automobile Alley saw the first such builds with Perch’d décor boutique and the Contemporary Museum. Deep Deuce houses the latest shipping container biz in these parts with OKSea, the brainchild of developer and sculptor Richard McKown. McKown remains one of the most original, fascinating visionaries in a town replete with such talent.

Richard McKown began life as an artist. While at Kansas City Art Institute, Yale offered the Norman native a fellowship between his junior and senior years. McKown finished his art education with an undergraduate degree in painting and an MFA in Sculpture from Boston University. McKown would eventually combine his artistic skills and training with property development, his father’s profession for 45 years in central Oklahoma.

McKown was one of the driving forces behind the Level residential and retail complex in Deep Deuce. While working on Level, McKown’s architects were also tinkering with shipping containers at NE 4th and Oklahoma, on a small strip of land that would be difficult to convert into a traditional project. 

“We wanted to do a dog park bar for all the people who walked their dogs in Deep Deuce,” McKown said, “That’s where the conversation started. The shipping container is a fantastic way to create a ‘temporary’ piece of architecture that would occupy the space for a good ten years, until something more permanent could take its place.”

McKown calls the container development a “pioneer species of real estate,” which is to say that the containers are not a permanent solution. They can be easily broken down and transported off-site; all that is required is to cut a few welded joints, and the development can be disassembled. Simple, right?

But the box that becomes the business proved tricky. “This has been one of the most expensive per-square-foot construction projects I’ve undertaken,” McKown said.

How does a $4,000 container turn into a costly development? Shipping containers are not built to house humans, or animals for that matter. They are meant to transport products, and while McKown estimates that they are durable for a solid fifty years, that does not mean they are automatically habitable for people. 

“Much of the development you see surrounding shipping containers is done in places were air conditioning or heating aren’t necessities,” McKown explains.

In other words, that shipping container tiki shack on a Hawaiian beach or the shipping container tiny house in a hipster neighborhood in Southern California might be fine for those climates, but in Oklahoma, they need a/c. The Anchor Down Restaurant, the new gourmet corn dog concept, required ten tons of air conditioning units.

“Metal is very conductive of heat and cold,” McKown explained, “so you have to insulate accordingly. With shipping containers, that’s very expensive. So is the process of creating thermal breaks between the metal and living space. You have to keep the steel skin away from the interior structure. Most of the work is done by welders, and they are much more expensive than carpenters.”

Explaining information like this to clients is part of McKown’s specialty. He is a liaison of sorts between designers and contractors. His art background comes in very handy in the process. A focus on aesthetics makes him sympathetic with architects and designers who want to build beautifully.

“I tell my designers that I will back their designs one hundred percent if they hit the cost I give them,” McKown said. That sort of calculus makes everyone involved happy. 

There is something quite charming—even beautiful—about OKSea, too. Once upon a time in the 1970s, it seemed there were more feet of hamster Habitrail tubes in suburbia than yards on all the football fields in the same town. Our rooms looked like a small-scale model for a futuristic city: little living areas connected by long stretches of tunnel. OKSea has that same feel, something that is eminently practical, but designed with the future in mind.