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