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A cargo-container retreat: That's thinking inside the box

ZAYANTE, Calif. - Suspended from a crane in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Connie DeWitt's kitchen and bathroom are inches from nudging a madrone tree.

ZAYANTE, Calif. - Suspended from a crane in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Connie DeWitt's kitchen and bathroom are inches from nudging a madrone tree.

The 30-foot shipping container was the largest of six trucked from Oakland, Calif., up a muddy road one Thursday afternoon. Before dinner, less than eight hours after the containers arrived, workers from NorCal Construction in Santa Cruz had ground the final bits of rust off the boxes and welded them together to create DeWitt's two-story mountain retreat.

"The crane guy said it might be tough, but if we put a man on the moon, we can do it," DeWitt said.

Homes built from used cargo containers are a growing trend, but this cabin was a first for nearly everyone involved in its construction: the DeWitts; designer David Fenster of Modulus Architects; general contractor Adam Dorn of NorCal Construction; and even Santa Cruz County, which has known an offbeat home or two in its day.

Pieced together like Lincoln Logs in a single afternoon, the construction project seemed to belie the time it took to design the cabin, and fit it within the DeWitts' budget and space constraints.

"There have been more consultants on this project than I've done on certain high-rises," Fenster said.

As a young girl in Upstate New York, Connie DeWitt had a 1,000-acre wooded wonderland at her disposal. She wanted the same for her 7-year-old son, Kyler, and the family's postage-stamp backyard in downtown San Jose wasn't cutting it. In May 2009, she and husband Kam DeWitt purchased 10.8 acres on an adjacent pair of parcels off Zayante Road.

High-tech engineers by trade, Connie and Kam DeWitt got "the Internet bug" and moved together to Silicon Valley in 1997. Connie DeWitt eventually left the start-up life, so when she got the idea for the mountain cabin, she knew she'd be working on a budget. She didn't want to compromise on the design, though.

DeWitt wanted a light-filled, minimalist retreat, a world away from the family's San Jose residence, which was built in 1912.

A prefab home seemed like the obvious choice, maybe a Michelle Kaufmann or a Rocio Romero. Both designers offer a modern aesthetic, with relatively predictable pricing. But trucking a prefab home into the Santa Cruz Mountains posed challenges.

Even if a truck could make it up the steep, winding road through the redwoods, the private bridge off Zayante Road was too narrow to fit a house.

Some prefab homes "are flat-pack, like Ikea houses, and the constructor puts it together," DeWitt said. "But [the designs are] not that flexible. And our land is terraced, as the creek has worked its way down over the eons." DeWitt's research eventually pointed her to shipping containers, reused by a growing number of people to build homes and commercial structures.

DeWitt estimates she will have paid close to $600,000 for her custom home. The DeWitts contacted a homeowner in Richmond, Va., who warned them that if they were hoping to save money, they should look elsewhere.

The same proved true for saving time.

"It's been a much bigger project than any of us anticipated," DeWitt said.

Even before the myriad of consultants - soil analysts, structural engineers, and geologists, to name a few - DeWitt's first roadblock was finding a suitably flat spot on her land. It helped that she wanted a home with a light footprint, no more than 1,200 square feet.

On a camping trip, she found a clearing, roughly 200 by 70 feet, where the trees were already felled and the sunlight streamed in.

The DeWitts said they might one day retire to their mountain home. And carrying groceries down the 120-foot trail from their new driveway, across the steel footbridge to their front door, will keep them in shape, Connie DeWitt said.