The concept of building homes, businesses, commercial buildings, multifamily units, hostels, hotels and motels, just naming a few of the known applications, from shipping containers is nothing new. A few years ago, much before the time 0f acceptance by most, I had set up a small business and it just was not right timing. Now, I think it is.
Alternative “Green” Building techniques
People are using and experimenting with rammed earth, sod, reclaimed wood, oriented-strand board and straw just to list a few methods. Due to the higher energy cost nowadays, the smorgasbord of offerings in alternative building methods and materials is staggeringly abundant, if not a little confusing.
There are architectural innovators advocating prefabrication to make a better “housetrap” using high-tech products and cutting-edge mass production. They are trying to develop a new housing methodology to produce energy-efficient houses built to withstand anything nature can create.
The problem with the prefab movement is like most new construction it typically uses less-than-sustainable resources, like steel and wood. (True factory production could indeed reduce our ecological footprint by eliminating the waste typical of construction, but that’s still quite far from reality.) And the problem with environmentally sound but old-fashioned building techniques is that they require too much time and skilled labor to solve our society’s need for affordable green housing on a grand scale.
We believe that one of the solutions other than hybrid SIP (Structural Insulated Panels) is the weird, yet pragmatic beauty of the used shipping container. Cheap, strong and easily transportable by boat, truck or train, these big steel structures now litter the ports of America as mementos of our Asian-trade imbalance.
Hurricane proof, flood proof, fire proof, these metal Lego blocks are tough enough to be stacked 12-high empty — and thus can be used in smaller multistory buildings. Used containers often have teak floors and sometimes are insulated. The bright orange, blue and rust corrugated boxes may not appeal to everyone, but many people find them not just the ultimate in postmodern appropriation but aesthetically pleasing as well.
And even though containers are a forms of green building, in the current economy, they are virtually a waste product. Making a building (which can last and last) out of what is essentially a huge piece of industrial detritus takes recycling to a new level.
The concept of using shipping containers as buildings is hardly new — institutions like the military have been using the structures as temporary offices, bunk houses and showers for some time. In the past couple of years, a field known as container architecture has evolved.
A handful of architectural firms have built prototypes or plans for shipping-container homes. Most of these designers develop each house or project as a one-off, but one prefab factory has begun pumping out little container homes that are not meant for the military encampment or the disaster relief camp.
Since this factory went into production this year, has sold a dozen of his so-called Quik Houses, each based on five shipping containers. These are two-story, 2,000-square-foot homes with skylights and enormous glass windows, equipped with three bedrooms and two baths. The price, which ranges from $76,000 for the basic kit to $160,000 (with all the bells and whistles like a stainless-steel kitchen and mahogany doors), is under $100 per square foot, not including land or foundation.
If shipping containers are cheap, transportable and stackable and able to survive most disasters, why haven’t they been more widely adopted already?
Building codes — that’s really the big hurdle. Even though they are stronger than most construction forms, it’s hard to convince planning departments of anything so new. Indeed, although some California counties have allowed shipping-container construction, Rancho Palos Verdes has proposed building codes that would disallow any shipping containers as housing.
As long as we are trading with Asia there are going to be extra shipping containers, it’s a very green product, but we would never advocate using new shipping containers.
Shipping containers are far from environmentally perfect, it still takes energy to move them around. Ideally, our society won’t overproduce these steel boxes forever. And even if it does, that overproduction won’t be enough to satisfy our housing needs.
But shipping-container architecture does signal a new creativity among architects and builders that may be more powerful than any magic-bullet building technique. After a hundred years of environmentally disastrous construction methods and escalating real estate prices, the shipping container is more than a harebrained scheme of an eco-shelter movement — it’s a whisper of the weird world of housing and office buildings to come.