With the crash of the housing market in the early 2000’s, and a recent global trend towards green building, architects and home builders are turning to steel shipping containers to bridge the gap between eco- friendly building trends, durability and affordability.
Shipping containers, in functionality, have a relatively short lifespan. Once they are retired from the sea, they’re stacked and abandoned to save money on moving empty containers back to their point of origin, or melting them down to re-purpose the steel. As a result, an estimated 11 million abandoned containers have stacked up in port cities and dumping grounds across the world.
As a result, builders in the 1980’s caught on to the abundance of this resource, and slowly began to recognize the opportunity to create a structure that was environmentally friendly, inexpensive, mobile, and unique in its design through using recycled containers as the base material.
Current Day Designs
Fast forward 20 years, and shipping container home design has taken over the niche building market, providing low cost, durable solutions to everything from emergency shelters and student housing, to office buildings and luxury homes, remote cabins and mountain getaways.
Running anywhere from $500 on the low end, to upwards of $6000,containers provide an ideal building material that is fire, mold and termite proof, and more durable than conventional wooden stick framing.
Their steel frames provide them with the strength to better tolerate force brought on by higher lateral loads (the type of horizontal force brought on by hazards such as hurricanes or earthquakes), and allows them to bear higher weight loads.
Their standard sizing (generally 8’ x 20’ or 8’x 40’) makes them ideal for creating stacked, modular buildings that encourage efficiency and simplicity, and that are mobile. Because of this mobility, shipping container homes can be pre-fabricated and moved to a site, or assembled onsite, providing builders and buyers a quick turnaround time for residential or commercial construction (some sources estimating a time reduction by as much as 40%).
The low cost of the container, combined with the reduced time it takes to convert it into a usable space, provides a cost efficient structure that averages 2/3 the price, per square foot ($80-$140), of conventional building and housing spaces- and individuals and municipalities are investing heavily.
Examples From Around the World
In 2006, Dutch housing firm, Tempohousing, completed construction on the largest container village in the world (at that time), providing 1000 homes to students. Firms, such as Falcon Containers, are catering their designs to the military for temporary housing and training facilities, and others, such as GM, are using shipping container homes and offices to promote urban renewal projects in lower income areas, including a newly unveiled project in poverty- ridden Detroit.
While the ingenuity and creativity that architects and builders are applying towards shipping container home design and application is exciting, these sturdy structures aren’t without their own disadvantages. Their primary purpose, from inception, is to ship goods across long distances. To ensure that the contents of each container are protected from harmful insects and other pests, and to prevent spreading non-natives species between different regions of the world, container floors are heavily treated with pesticides and fungicides. There is currently no standard system for disposal of the toxic materials during the building process. You should always use proper safety techniques while removing or working with these floors.
Also, building codes for residential container structures have yet to catch up with the construction trend. Working within the standards of local building codes that are geared towards traditional construction practices oftentimes presents home builders with problems obtaining building permits. Shipping container homes are a first for many, and permit regulations that guide current building processes don’t take into account the differences in shipping container construction, sometimes delaying or completely shutting projects down. Make sure to research the local laws and guidelines of the city where you will be building.
Issues with humidity and temperature control (as a conductor of heat, steel home construction can run into problems with condensation and subsequent rust) are relatively common, but can be dealt with using proper insulation materials and practices during the construction process.
These issues, so far, have only driven builders and architects to approach shipping container design and construction processes with more creativity, launching the eco-friendly building niche into the mainstream. Container homes, offices, and off- the- grid living spaces are popping up, globally, launching a revolution in building industry trends that promotes renewable building materials, environmental and structural sustainability, cost- effectiveness, and most importantly- creative ingenuity.