Shipping containers become distinctive housing on land

An outside-the-box idea has some architects and home-buyers turning to inside-the-box eco-friendly, affordable housing that uses as building blocks the 8-by-40-foot steel containers often left vacant at seaports.

Mainly an "experiment" at this time, the homes have the potential to take off in the industry, said Bill Gati, a member of the American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Design Committee.

"It's cutting-edge, and people that use it are considered mavericks and trail blazers," he said.

Architect Peter DeMaria of DeMaria Design in Manhattan Beach, Calif., says the recycled containers, which cost between $2,000 and $3,000, are only "the tip of the iceberg" of the designs. The homes, which use anywhere from four to eight containers, can include add-ons such as solar panels, green roofs, radiant heating and other environmentally friendly or energy efficient features, DeMaria says.

David Cross, founder of SG Blocks, a company that modifies containers at 17 U.S. locations, says there are about 75 homes nationwide using shipping containers.

The company, which formed at the end of 2006, plans to modify more than 1,000 containers next year. Multifamily, multistory buildings constructed with the containers cost 20% less to build than those that use traditional materials, Cross said. The container buildings also are finished 40% faster, he said.

Low-cost modern housing

With high construction costs throughout California, Anna and Sven Pirkl turned to DeMaria for a lower-cost modern dwelling that used recycled materials for their Redondo Beach lot. DeMaria designed a 3,220-square-foot home on a 8,860-square-foot property for the couple, DeMaria said.

More than a year later, the Pirkls don't mind that their home, completed in May 2007, stands out in the neighborhood because of its modern design, Sven Pirkl said.

On the outside, the Pirkls didn't try to hide that their home is made from six shipping containers cut into eight, although the couple did use beige acrylic paint to cover the containers. On the inside, the Pirkl's home has high ceilings, concrete floors, recycled cotton insulation and walls framed from formaldehyde-free plywood, Pirkl said.

As an added benefit, by retaining many of the features of the containers, the Pirkls won't have to deal with costly upkeep, he added.

DeMaria is planning to offer the container houses starting at $150 per square foot, or $300,000 for 2,000 square feet, through Logical Homes, a website being launched this month to let customers purchase the homes that arrive on location quickly and need little on-site labor, he said. Costs for a traditional custom home in Manhattan Beach run around $225 to $250 per square foot, he added.

Skepticism at the start

It's the shipping container's strength that makes it valuable in building construction, Cross said.

"These are built to take a dynamic, moving life aboard ships, and then we take them and put them in a stable environment on a foundation," he said. As with other buildings made from steel, required insulation keeps the homes from overheating, Cross said.

SG Blocks is slated to provide housing for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, Canada, through a project that will construct 300 units in eight three-story buildings using less than 100 containers. The buildings, which will be completed by Nov. 1, will house staff until the games are over, after which they will be disassembled and moved to another location, Bruce Russell, SG Blocks managing partner, said.

Architect Adam Kalkin of Bernardsville, N.J., who first used shipping containers in home construction 10 years ago, recalls meeting a lot of skepticism at the start, but he says growing environmental interest and high construction and labor costs have led clients to look at containers as a solution.

"Ten years ago, they were like, 'What are you talking about?' " he said. In Salt Lake City, Kalkin's design is being turned into City Center Lofts, a seven-story condominium with eight residential and one commercial unit set for completion next spring, owner Adam Price said.

Costing less than condominiums built using traditional materials, City Center Lofts will be 50% to 70% recycled material by weight, Price said.

Kalkin's company, Quik Build, is also working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide emergency housing, although the agency has yet to order a project, Kalkin said.

Because they are made of steel, container houses would hold up better than traditional homes in areas prone to natural disasters, said Kent Pipes, president of the Affordable Homes Group, a non-profit organization based in Mount Holly, N.J.

The containers also could be transported to areas after a disaster to provide temporary housing to affected residents.

Besides emergency housing, Pipes believes containers are an affordable housing solution, he said.

The group is looking to provide single-family container homes at less than $100 per square foot, Pipes said.

"We are utilizing a resource that right now is sitting unused and wasted," he said. "We don't just take something and recycle it, we recycle it up in the waste stream so that it becomes better than its alternative use."

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