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.

They are very robust, Dick Varnell, Fort Worth entrepreneur and hotel owner

Meanwhile, in Big Lake, they poured concrete pads with piers and metal plates to anchor down the containers once they arrived.

Water and electricity was brought in. After the containers arrived, they were decorated with beds, tables, hot plates and big screen TVs. Spartan, but liveable.

“Once your inside you can’t tell it’s a container.
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It’s like a house,” Fleet said.

They dubbed it “The Lodge at Big Lake.”

At first, Varnell and Fleet had 16 containers stacked around a central court when it opened in March 2015. They added 16 more, bringing it up to 32 rooms. They get $79.99 a night for a double, and $69.99 a night for a single. Seven to 10 of the rooms are now occupied, Varnell said.

Residents of the town on the edge of the Permian Basin believe oil patch jobs will eventually rebound.

Before the recent oil bust, the original plan was to put in 7 pods, for a total 112 rooms, Varnell said. If and when the boom returns to Big Lake and the Permian, they have room to expand.

But if that doesn’t happen, they can always move them. After all, they are shipping containers. They’ve already talked about building more “hotels” in Pecos, Texas and New Mexico.

“You can hook it up and put it on a trailer and haul them around,” Varnell said. “We’ll have to wait and see how we do with this. … We had a big learning curve on these things.”

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