Old Shipping Containers Are New Housing Trend

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Lara Swimmer

A shipping container converted into a living space

Anne Adriance thought her architect was kidding. She couldn't fathom the idea of building a 3,000-sq.-ft. (280 sq m) coastal retreat in Maine out of cargo containers. Yes, the same rectangular shipping containers that you see piled high in ports worldwide are being recycled as homes, office buildings and even traveling museum exhibits. Architectural use of the containers doubled in 2010 compared with the previous year, according to Barry Naef, founder of the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association. And the trend — dubbed "cargotecture" by Seattle architect Joel Egan — is being fueled partly by sustainability but mostly by sassy artistic sensibility.

"It really cuts across all types of thinking and starts your imagination," says Adriance's New Jersey–based architect, Adam Kalkin, whose cargotecture projects include creating mobile museums for UNESCO to use in Africa. The steel boxes can be found everywhere from Miami's posh Art Basel show to a 50-container apartment complex in Salt Lake City, and are being considered as a possible source of disaster-relief housing.

With an empty container fetching anywhere from $2,800 to $4,800, depending on its size and availability, simple designs can be completed for as little as $95 per sq. ft. — not a bad price for custom architecture. Reusing old containers not only helps reduce a project's carbon footprint, but the modular nature of cargotecture — drop the containers anywhere with a crane — also reduces construction time too. Plus, the containers' weathering, or Cor-Ten, steel is designed to withstand the elements without any paint, and it has the added benefit of being strong enough to easily support green roofs. The flat-topped containers also pair well with solar panels, which many homeowners say they can afford because of the money they saved on building materials, according to Keith Dewey, who designs cargo homes and built one for his family in Victoria, B.C.

Although these structures can be a bear to heat and cool, high-quality insulation and passive cooling strategies like open-air ventilation can make them as energy efficient as traditional homes. Meanwhile, repurposing an item that may have spent a good 15 years traversing the seas can create a "visceral emotional response," says Egan, whose projects include a three-story, 24-container office complex that measures 7,200 sq. ft. (670 sq m) in Seattle and a 320-sq.-ft. (30 sq m) getaway he built on Ronnie Alexander's property in rural Enumclaw, Wash. "When you first look at it, it looks like a container," Alexander says. "But you lift up the back flap and go inside, and there are windows all the way around to enjoy the view."

And if lifting a flap doesn't suit your style, the containers can accommodate conventional windows and doors — but each addition will cost you.

"Living in it is wonderful," Adriance says about her home in Maine, which has 12 containers surrounding a glass-walled common room. "It feels private, intimate. It is so simple and yet accomplishes so much."

But, she adds, it was definitely interesting figuring how to arrange bedroom furniture in an 8-by-20-ft. (2.5 by 6 m) space. "In the kids' rooms, it didn't work to have two twin beds side by side," Adriance says. "We solved the challenge by running the beds lengthwise, head to head." Such is life in a shipping container.