Rossville couple's new bluff-view vacation houses created from shipping containers

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Michael and Teah Hicks crafted tiny homes from shipping containers for their "On the Rocks" vacation rentals in Rising Fawn, Ga.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Michael and Teah Hicks crafted tiny homes from shipping containers for their "On the Rocks" vacation rentals in Rising Fawn, Ga.

Who could have guessed that two tiny houses could pose such sizable challenges? But when the houses are rehabbed cargo containers that need to be tucked into the rural and rocky terrain of a Rising Fawn, Georgia, bluff, logistics loom large.

Fortunately, the payoff for the extraordinary efforts undertaken by owners Michael and Teah Hicks is shaping up to be significant as well. The diminutive dwellings, the latest in the couple's suite of real estate properties, have debuted to glowing reviews on Airbnb and similar sites.

Nicknamed "On the Rocks," the mountain retreat has been an idea bubbling in Michael's head for several years now. Michael, 39, says he has been buying, selling and building homes since he was 19. Teah, 40, is a Realtor.

Over the years, they've added short- and long-term rentals, self-storage and investment properties to their real estate portfolio. "On the Rocks" is their first venture into tiny houses.

"We have other vacation rentals, but he wanted to do something different," Teah says of her husband. "He builds houses and flips houses, and he wanted something different and unique. It's kind of been his dream for a few years."

What sets the Hickses' mountaintop tiny homes apart are their origins. Rather than ground-up builds, theirs started life as shipping containers - the big metal boxes that stack like Legos on seafaring cargo ships. Imagine about two-thirds the length of a railroad boxcar, with the same cavernous ambiance.

To see the structures now, only the boxy shape and grid of locking mechanisms left intact on the ends give hints at the containers' previous lives. Fresh paint and cedar trim give the exterior a homey look. Inside, they're comfy, cozy and oh so cool.

"We wanted to keep the outside facade to where you could look at it and tell what it is," Teah says. "On the inside, it really just looks like a home."

The tiny houses sit several feet apart on a wide ledge overlooking Dade County, Georgia. At more than 1,300 feet above ground level, the site often looms above the clouds, a phenomenon noted by some of their Airbnb reviewers raving about the property's views. The pitched roofs are meant to resemble the wingspan of the hang gliders that launch from Lookout Mountain Flight Park nearby.

The smaller of the two structures, made from a single shipping container, began life in the parking lot of Michael's business, MTAC Properties, in Rossville, where the Hickses live with daughters Annabelle, 10, and Caroline, 7. In many communities, zoning ordinances prohibit tiny homes, a mindset Michael is hoping to change by showing that "tiny house" is not synonymous with "shack."

Part of that effort was putting the container home on public display while he and Teah searched for a permanent site for it.

"I wanted to show the concept," he says.

Eventually they located the brow property in Dade County, where zoning regulations were receptive. They began construction in February 2020.

The wooded lot required grading - "that was one of the big projects," says Teah - as well as terracing a walkway from the roadside driveway to the brow-front doorways.

The steep and rocky terrain posed other challenges as well.

"It was a job getting the septic tanks in," Teah says.

Michael expected to park a crane on Scenic Highway and use it to lower the shipping containers from the back of a truck to their foundations, but the crane was no match for the steep grade and the weight of the containers. Ultimately, he brought in an excavator "and walked them down the hill with it," he says.

The pandemic slowed their progress, but they were ready to open the smaller structure by early October. The second, made of two containers, followed a couple of weeks later.

In the smaller house, "everything is brand-new," says Teah. "In the double container, we wanted to repurpose more material. We pulled old sinks from the '50s (from previous home flips) and used those. We refinished the floors, the original floors of the container. That was really cool. You can see where the two containers were put together. There's a line in the floor with the metal (strip) where they join together."

Otherwise, the building materials and design choices - white tile, Sheetrock, shiplap - resemble any modern home's. As rental properties, the kitchens are outfitted with the basics for overnight guests, but perhaps higher-end: an induction cooktop, convection microwave, coffee press.

Beds, sofas and a loft in the larger container are placed to take advantage of the sweeping views outside the picture windows. To keep the focus on those views, there's no internet service or television, but guests will find everything they need to make s'mores around the fire pit outside.

"It's meant to be a place to retreat, meditate and relax," Teah says.

The smaller home holds a queen-size bed and full shower but other elements give it an efficiency feel. The mini fridge tucks under the counter. There's a small foldaway table and adjacent nook to store two folding chairs. The standout feature is a daybed swing on the large front porch.

Freelance videographer Levi Kelly, who documents his Airbnb stays on a YouTube channel, plus a season of "Tiny BNB" on The Design Network, recently came for a two-night stay at "On the Rocks" and planned to post videos in December.

"I loved staying there," he says. "Such a unique place to experience tiny living, and with a great view!"

With the success of the first two structures as overnight rentals, Michael is now at work adding a third container home at the site. He likes the idea of finding new uses for the containers.

"I go by the saying, 'Find your repurpose,'" he says.

Eventually, they'd like to install more container homes at other sites, perhaps build a community of tiny homes. A member of the Rossville City Council, Michael dreams of converting containers into retail shops or small restaurants, similar to The Cargo District in Wilmington, North Carolina.

"It would have to be in Rossville," he says. "I'd like to try to drive some growth that way."

Teah says her husband "thinks on a larger scale" than she does.

"I was thinking, 'Let's do one and see how it goes,' and he was instantly thinking, 'Tiny house community.'

"But I love unique spaces, so it wasn't hard to convince me to do this," she says. "We've looked at silo homes. Maybe we'll do a project like that next."