Shipping containers provide affordable housing

Companies and architects are building homes made from shipping containers to provide temporary disaster relief housing and modern, chic beach homes. This article is reprinted from the Center for American Progress’s “It’s Easy Being Green” series.

There’s an emerging and innovative solution to the environmental, economic, and housing concerns we face around the globe: shipping container homes. It turns out reusing the old containers is an inexpensive, efficient, and environmentally friendly way to build homes that can be used by low-income residents or as temporary housing following a natural disaster. Architects and humanitarians alike have jumped on the bandwagon to make everything from chic urban spaces and stylish homes to disaster relief and affordable housing.

There are enough shipping containers on earth to build an eight-foot high wall around the equator–twice. Most goods shipped overseas or by train travel in these containers, and many nations import far more containers than they export. Empty containers then accumulate because it is too expensive and wasteful to ship them back to their countries of origin–the United States in particular has a large surplus of containers due to its trade deficit. The containers often become neighborhood nuisances, accumulating in tall stacks and creating eyesores. In some neighborhoods the stacks of containers become so high they even cause the sun to set an hour earlier.

But instead of letting the containers go to waste, they can be used in creative and socially responsible ways. They are particularly well suited for constructing buildings, as they are stackable and their steel walls are durable, fireproof, and resistant to rust, mold, and termites. Shipping container homes can be constructed for far less cost than traditional building methods and use as much as 80 percent recycled materials. The homes can also be prefabricated, a method or a system where the structure or its components are manufactured at a facility and transported to the building site. This reduces the amount of time needed to complete a house, drives down costs, and uses indoor construction, which eliminates interruptions from inclement weather.

One organization utilizing this building technique is PFNC Global communities, which stands for “Por Fin Nuestra Casa,” the Spanish equivalent of “Finally, a Home of Our Own.” PFNC is in the process of launching their one-unit shipping container home business, and they plan to create housing for people currently living in dangerous or insufficient housing situations around the world. They can put together a unit for less than $10,000, and BusinessWeek even took note and named their concept one of the top 20 most important innovations of the next 10 years.

The shipping container method is also ideal for creating portable temporary disaster relief shelters. Small units can be constructed quickly and then shipped out to provide people with a roof and basic amenities until they are back on their feet.

In 2006, Aquentium, a company based in North Palm Springs, CA, unveiled a deployable disaster-relief housing structure created from a used shipping container. They entered into an exclusive marketing and licensing agreement with Theodore Ciotti, the homes’ inventor. The sample unit is a 20-foot container that became a fold-out, 450-square-foot housing structure. It features two bedrooms and one bathroom containing a sink, toilet, and shower. There’s also a kitchen area and living room.

Aquentium President Mark Taggatz said the housing units can be used “for any disaster–tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, fires” and that the company also plans to be competitive in the low-income housing market.

Some architectural innovators have also used the containers to create sleek, modern, and architecturally stunning homes, apartments, and office buildings. California architect Peter DeMaria built the first two-story shipping container home in the United States in 2006 using recycled steel containers and a combination of conventional stick frame construction and prefabricated assemblies. The result was a Redondo, CA Beach Home that won the 2007 American Institute of Architects Award for Design Excellence/Special Innovation. The design resembles the geometric focus, simplicity, and openness of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The shipping container trend is young and gaining fast momentum. A combination of a slumping housing market and the need for temporary housing following disasters as well as low-cost construction has caused homes, offices, apartments, and hotels made from the recycled containers to spring up around the world. Projects such as Aquentium’s hold tremendous promise to provide a place to live for those struck by hurricanes and floods, and the container homes could also play a role in creating green affordable housing for low-income residents, which could help prevent homelessness and reduce the environmental impact from construction. In the future, don’t be surprised if you see more container homes popping up wherever they’re needed.

Read more articles from the “It’s Easy Being Green” series

14 Responses to Shipping containers provide affordable housing

  1. Maarten says:

    You might want to check out for an equally or – in my eyes – often more elegant solution to low-cost housing.

  2. Jim Beacon says:

    To recycle shipping containers which have already been manufactured for the purpose of temporary housing (let’s please make sure they do not become permanent housing) is an efficient use of already-consumed energy and materials. But let’s not get carried away — making new shipping containers expressly to use for housing is not an environmentally sound proposal. We already did that in a big way in the U.S. from the 1950’s through the 1970’s — we sold millions of rectangular metal boxes fitted with a metal door and a few windows for people to live in — we called them trailers and later ‘mobile homes’. Now we call them RVs. The metal box house proved so impractical that eventually, except for luxury RVs, they stopped building them out of metal and began constructing them out of wood frames with standard insulation, roofing and siding materials. This is not a new idea — it’s an bad old one being revived because the global recession has left us with a lot of empty shipping containers lying around unused.

  3. GFW says:

    Yeah, I think Jim’s right.

    I’m also rather curious how you insulate these steel boxes to an appropriate R-value for habitation.

  4. paulm says:

    I bet the Insurance industry is shaking its boots.

    Its been an eventful resent time….

    Louisiana, Florida Brace For Floods

  5. hapa says:

    shipping containers to me are about the size than the materials.

    our architecture’s gigantism is to create debt, not meet needs.

    use of space always reflects budgets and priorities.

  6. Another one of these guys is SG Blocks. Here’s a movie on them

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Small houses, hurricane proof, for $5000 made from paper:,1518,601067,00.html

  8. Pangolin says:

    Cob, rammed earth and straw bale houses will outperform these gian metal lumps. They don’t require power tools or plasma torches and grinders. They can be erected anywhere there is clay in the soil. They can be wider than eight feet. Let’s not forget that they woule use up some of the global surplus of labor.

    A family friend lives in a rammed earth house and another lives in a straw bale house and I would take either of those over a modern, balloon framed structure. Thermal mass is far more comfortable than drywall over insulation.

    Since the majority of the cost of housing in most places consists of the land, the plumbing, the foundation and the roof these cold steel boxes aren’t going to do a damn thing for anybody.

    Let’s not forget that in the US we currently have a surplus of housing with 1 in 9 residences vacant while banking laws create homelessness in the form of evictions.

    Skip the ugly steel boxes; please.

  9. Rockfish says:

    Architects have been messing about with these things for as long as they have been around. Arch school studios are full of ideas, as are competition submissions, and, yes, even my sketchbook.

    They have several shortcomings which are yet to be overcome:

    1)As disaster housing, they are heavy and must be shipped by truck, or helicopter, one at a time. A crane is needed to off load them at their destination. These things are often impossible in disaster areas.
    As voluntary housing:
    2) The interior dimensions, specifically height, are barely adequate in raw form, and get worse if you add insulation and finishes. You cannot add to the exterior dimensions until it is shipped, as these are standardized for handling.
    3) Steel is too hot in hot climates, and too cold in cold. Insulating adds costs and can affect usable dimensions.
    4) They DO rust.

    Of course, if you have no home whatsoever then I’m sure these shortcomings would not matter. Yet, for some reason, containers have been around for many, many years, as has the desperate need for housing a lot of the worlds population, and I would venture thousands of people have proposed the idea of living in containers, yet nothing has ever come of it.
    Not to diminish anyone’s efforts, but there are decades of housing experiments with these things and none have worked yet. This just isn’t news.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    All straw “Straw Bale House Survives Violent Shaking At Earthquake Lab”:

    Simple and inexpensive.

  11. Su Butcher says:

    One of the disadvantages of large scale Off Site Manufactured affordable housing is the ability to deliver it to site, when the site might be rural and isolated. These steel containers have the same problem. There are also various issues with moving large objects about once you get to site, which have caused problems with larger block and frame systems. Much more sensible to construct buildings on a human scale with human scale elements.

    In addition local planning constraints, at least in the UK, make it very difficult to use mass-produced single type housing units on the range of brownfield and exception sites where a housing need has been demonstrated, particularly if making windows in different places is expensive and time consuming.

    As a result when GreenGauge Homes were developed they did not rely on a construction system which is large format or produced in factory to rigid, mass-production standards. Instead the approach is to meet the needs of the provider, constructor and user of the housing, rather than pander to what might appear an elegant situation but is really just a headline -grabbing gimmick.

    You can find out more about how we did it at

  12. Sarah says:

    We have architect Peter DeMaria here in LA and his container projects are stunning. He has done many of them and his new Logical Home company just opened for business. The work is so beautifully elegant. I’ve seen a few different videos on him and his work and I’m hooked.

  13. Settor63 says:

    How many golden opportunities do we let pass us by on a weekly basis? ,

  14. LaMar says:

    Shipping containers make strong homes for earthquake and hurricane country but insulating them has always created problems.

    Straw bale homes are well insulated but not as strong as steel and need steel or wood supports for anything over one story.

    I combined the two for a super strong well insulated home that could be built very inexpensively!

    The straw bale and shipping container home video: