Shipping Containers Serve As Home For Roustabouts In Texas Oil Patch

By Max B. Baker
Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Malcolm Fleet and Dick Varnell didn’t set out to build a Ritz Carlton.

But when the Fort Worth entrepreneurs stacked 32 shipping containers together on the edge of Big Lake and called it a hotel, they thought they had come up with a pretty good idea for housing transient workers who descend on small towns in the Texas oil patch.

And they still believe in Big Lake and the project, despite the recent oil bust.

“I wouldn’t put these things in some places — like the cities — but the remote areas like this, it makes sense,” said Varnell. “It was something that made sense economically.”

Affordable housing is a big issue in small towns hit by a wave of drilling. In Big Lake, which is about 300 miles southwest of Fort Worth, officials have said when the oil boom first hit in the Permian Basin five years ago, workers were sleeping in their cars. Pretty soon so-called man camps — impromptu collections of small cabins and RV parks — sprang up.

“Housing has been an issue across the basin,” said Tim Dove, president and chief operating officer of Irving-based Pioneer Natural Resources, a big player in the Permian Basin.

Varnell and Fleet thought there had to be a better answer than building traditional apartments. A veteran of the oil industry, Varnell said he chatted with Fleet, who had a background in the apartment business, about it at the Ridglea Country Club. One thing led to another.

For about $4,000 each, they bought steel containers that are 8 feet wide, 40 feet long and 9.5 feet tall. Built in China, they were used only one time to ship goods. Then, before hauling them to Big Lake, they cut in windows, installed bathrooms, sprayed in foam insulation and hung drywall.

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