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Life & Work with Chris Nichols and Nicole Stopka-Nichols

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chris Nichols and Nicole Stopka-Nichols. 

Hi Chris and Nicole, so excited to have you on the platform. So, before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
Nicole is originally from Hamburg, Germany a city of 2 million people, and Chris from Evart, MI a city of less than 2,000. After a 6-year long-distance relationship, we got married in 2015 and decided to make the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit our new home. 

While we knew that we wanted to own a part of Detroit, we didn’t initially set out to build out of shipping containers. We came close to purchasing an old Firehouse, then an old Library but at the time those projects seemed too daunting to undertake. When 2426 MI Ave. popped up for sale, we asked ourselves “well, what if we designed and build our own place?”. In hindsight, the irony is that it has no doubt been harder and has morphed into a much bigger project than originally anticipated. 

However, Nicole being a Textile Engineer and Chris as an Automotive Designer, we knew that we had technical ability and aesthetic sense to try, and we knew the only thing holding us back would be our fears – so we dove into the deep end. 

We chose to build with shipping containers as aesthetically they provide a gritty but contemporary combination that we feel matches the industrial, maker spirit of Detroit. As the property falls within a Main Street Overlay, we designed SteelHaus with two commercial spaces and 3 loft apartments, incorporating brick and fiber cement as complimentary building elements to help fit into the block. It is being build using eleven 40-foot-high cube cargo shipping containers as the main structural element, while bridging spaces between the containers allows for an open lofty feel, with ceilings of up to 18 feet. 

We plan to complete Spring 2023. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
We have no doubt faced many obstacles since beginning the project. We had to find an architect that aligned with our vision for the space and was ready to work with, rather than against the containers. We ended up designing the majority of it ourselves, while having to re-work the façade multiple times to fall within code. As we were finally ready to break ground, we faced our largest challenge yet. We discovered that the previous building had simply been backfilled when demolished and the soil was littered with brick and debris. This caused us to have to redesign the foundation to be three times the depth and width to make up for unfavorable soil consistency. As we were going into winter, it took eight months just to finish the foundation and that is when Covid hit and everything came to a halt. And as restrictions were starting to lift and we were ready to re-start we were faced with a shortage of the once so abundant containers – and we needed 11 of them. This ended up pushing us into another winter season. Now however, we have restarted and our floor and roof trusses are finally going up. 

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Nicole Stopka-Nichols is a Sales Manager for Adient with a degree in Textile Engineering. Chris Nichols is an Automotive Designer for Rivian. with a degree in Transportation Design. 

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
The biggest lesson we learned were no doubt how to cut costs while maintaining design intent. When commodity prices tripled, we re-designed rooms to create less need for walls, cut less cut corrugation from containers and make the spaces just more efficient overall, while keeping our original vision. Also, we learned to try to stay positive, look ahead and stay persistent. We never thought it would take this long, or grow into such a big project, but at the end, it is turning into one of our proudest achievements. 

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