Will Shipping Containers Catch On as Building Products?

Who says recycling has to stop with your bottles and old mail?

Patrick Beville built
the 1,600-square-foot Tadasana Residence outside Boone, N.C.,
using shipping containers.

Who says recycling has to stop with your bottles and old mail? Now, those interested in repurposing could go as far as building their homes or restaurants out of shipping containers.

Containers that were originally used for over-ocean, over-road and over-rail shipment of bulk goods are now being made over for residential occupancy and commercial storefront applications. This is especially useful in condensed cities, where space is more limited and the price of land is constraining to potential homeowners and business developers.

“A shipping container has a lot of built-in strength to it. These containers travel across the ocean and withstand hurricane-force winds and storms that occur on the ocean, so they’re very strong structural individual elements,” said Patrick Beville, professional engineer and a LEED-accredited professional who has built half a dozen homes out of the containers.

These containers can be used as the main structure, with several of them put together and nothing built around them, or they can be used as the basis of a structure made of other materials, offering a contemporary architectural design. Aside from the containers’ strength, they offer affordability and sustainability.

While the concept of building homes out of repurposed shipping containers has been around since the 1960s, it is now becoming a trend, thanks to the Internet, which has made people more aware of alternatives for affordable housing and sustainable design.

“More and more people think about sustainable living and getting off the grid, reusing some of the materials around the planet that we are just junking up and stacking,” said Boomer Sassmann, a consultant and Web developer to whom clients go first with questions about shipping container development.

The Boone, N.C.-based Dwellbox home, built by
Patrick Beville PE LEED AP, totals 700 square feet.

Since the containers themselves are small, the buildings they produce tend to be smaller. The average size for a home is between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet. For this reason, container housing is about 30 percent faster to build, more sustainable and costs less than standard building materials.

“It’s about economy of scale, meaning (container homes) are cheaper because they’re smaller, there’s less wiring, less hallways, less flooring, less everything. It gets you into the mindset of building a smaller structure,” Sassmann added.

Sassmann, who is building his own home out of shipping containers, creates 3D designs for clients seeking to simplify their living. He is usually the first stop for those interested in reusable container housing. His blog BigBoomDesign.com gets about 15,000 hits a month.

The possibilities are being considered worldwide. Citiq Property Developers has built an apartment block in the South African city of Johannesburg using shipping containers. And while smaller-scale residential housing tends to be more common than commercial real estate applications because of the size limitations, a developer named Shel Kimen plans to build a 36-room boutique hotel in Detroit from the containers on a piece of property currently owned by the city. Construction is expected as soon as the developer purchases the land, and the hotel could open in the fall of 2013, according to Hotel News Resource.

Shipping containers can also be used for condominiums, dorms, restaurants, expos, cabins and mobile homes.

According to the ISBU Association, the official trade organization for repurposed shipping containers, there is a container home fabrication facility coming to the United States. While plans for this the new modular home production facility using recycled shipping containers (ISBU modules) is still under wraps, it will be the largest in North America (read more at www.isbu-info.org). The global association currently has 20,000 members, including architects, contractors and related professionals.

“After this many years, and with large companies utilizing them, we realize this is certainly not a fad but a very solid trend for years to come,” said Barry Naef, managing director at ISBU.

Public acceptance has been slow in more established neighborhoods, as container housing sometimes carries the stigma of comparison to a “trailer home” until people see more contemporary designs.

“People don’t like change, especially when it has to do with cities, and county government—it scares them to sign off on something they haven’t seen before,” Sassmann added. “I do think that container homes have the potential to be what the trailer industry should have been, meaning that trailer homes are very poorly built, out of cheap materials, not insulated well, built on an assembly line. You can take some good out of the trailer.”

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